This year’s Booker Prize nominees amounted to a rather light vintage,
including winner Ian McEwan’s “Amsterdam.” The most unusual book to make the short list, however, was Patrick McCabe’s “Breakfast on Pluto,” which, while purporting to be about the horrors of the Irish troubles, is really a rather frothy comedy about cross-dressing and the search for true love. The hero(ine) is a kind of literary soul mate to Oskar in G|nter Grass’ “The Tin Drum.” Whereas Oskar responded to the barbarism of Nazi Germany by refusing to grow and getting himself locked up in a mental ward, Patrick “Pussy” Braden deals with the barbarism of his native Ireland by cross-dressing and prostituting himself, and writing his memoirs for the elucidation of his elusive psychiatrist, Dr. Terence.
The bastard child of a parish priest and the young girl the good father rapes in a fit of lust, Pussy describes her escape from Whiskers, a hateful harridan of a stepmom, to a life of whoring on the streets of early ’70s swinging London. One thing Pussy can’t escape, however, is the IRA. Like a resentful bully of an ex-boyfriend, it turns up wherever Pussy seems to be, and her response to this macho killing machine is to be its bitch: passive, defiant, pliant, but never owned by it. Nothing gets the irrepressible Pussy down, even when one of her lovers is murdered after double-dealing arms.
One of the novel’s chief strengths is the way McCabe memorably juxtaposes the everyday sudden visitations of horrific violence; an ordinary scene of shoppers in a busy street suddenly becomes a minefield of severed limbs. McCabe is equally adept at capturing the wonderful contradictions of Irishness, with all its gallows humor and irony. Describing the funeral of her murdered lover, a victim of his own duplicity, Pussy says: “So in the end I thought the best situation was to just not go. I sent a Mass card all right — deep down, he was a very religious man, no matter what they said about corruption and murder and all the rest of it.” Describing the cycle of unwanted teenage pregnancies and its effect on Mother Ireland, McCabe’s language is beautifully disquieting: “Barely over fourteen, some of them, already pushing buggies and looking years older than they are. And their children. Who can say it’s fair the way some of them are treated? You can tell by their complexions — pasty, porridgy skin colour that they all seem to have, left outside bars with mucus on their noses, chewing at their fingers and staring with those sad old, empty eyes. Eyes that say: ‘Who will love me? Why will no one love me?’”
But if it’s a coherent narrative you’re looking for, you won’t find it here; the book is little more than a series of chapterlets occasionally interrupted by the birdlike chatterings of Pussy’s scattered psyche. Like the little boy at the center of McCabe’s “Butcher Boy,” Pussy is indomitable to the point of soullessness. Resilience of the kind that McCabe writes about is not so much a strength as a psychosis.