You know you're in trouble right away with Joey Tallon, the manic narrator and self-appointed hero of Patrick McCabe's brilliant new tragicomic picaresque, "Call Me the Breeze." You just don't know how much trouble. Joey lives by himself -- except for the occasional visitations of someone named Mona -- in a "caravan" (i.e., a trailer) on the edge of a nowheresville Irish town along the Northern Ireland border. He uses way too many exclamation marks. His role models are Charles Manson and Travis Bickle (the protagonist of "Taxi Driver") and he understands, sort of, that that might make him seem a little weird.
Yes, Joey is delusional, but he's also strikingly intelligent, capable of flashes of insight and not without an irrepressible creative spark. His relentless, almost ruthless, enthusiasm makes him impossible to dislike, even though you know he's going to cause you pain. McCabe's treatment of him is much more subtle and interesting than the standard unreliable-narrator, tale-told-by-wacko model you might expect. (Something the author has already managed marvelously in his best-known novel, "The Butcher Boy," later made into a Neil Jordan film.)
When a blond girl named Jacy in a zippered blue denim jacket shows up in Joey's town in 1976 -- she's the "spit of Joni," he says, and her necklace is "exactly like you'd expect Joni to wear" -- he knows right away that she's The One. He also convinces himself that she's from California and imagines the two of them on the beach at Big Sur, strumming guitars along with Charlie "The Gardener" Manson, even though the only thing she's ever said to him is, "A pint of Guinness."
Joey hatches approximately the deranged plots regarding Jacy that you expect him to, but that's really not the most important part of his story. He reads Hermann Hesse and Allen Ginsberg (but violently dislikes Samuel Beckett); roadies for the Mohawks, his friend Boo Boo's "psychobilly" punk band; writes film treatments based on his dreams and hallucinations; persistently telephones Bono's office in Dublin and Harvey Weinstein's office in Los Angeles until he is firmly warned to stop; and runs for local office, employing a fable of reconciliation he has titled "The Chickens of Forgiveness!!!" as his campaign literature.
He also eats a lot of acid and a lot of steak-and-kidney pies, despite repeated vows to swear off both and embark on a Bickle-like regime of "total organization." One of them is driving him further round the bend and the other is making him fat as a "bullock," and something about the combination expresses the odd, wonderful and profoundly painful tenor of this book. Like the central character in McCabe's previous novel, "Breakfast on Pluto," a transvestite prostitute in love with an IRA gunman, Joey embodies modern Ireland's most violent contradictions.
Anyone who remembers the Ireland of the schizophrenic '70s and '80s, a poor and backward nation afflicted by a bloodthirsty guerrilla war but ever more tightly bound to the wider world of Euro-socialism and American capitalism, will read "Call Me the Breeze" with a hilarious but exceedingly painful sense of recognition. Joey's Scotsfield (which can't be far from McCabe's hometown of Clones, County Monaghan) begins as a provincial backwater dominated by corrupt politicians and IRA "hard men." By the end of the story, it has a McDonald's, a lavishly funded community college, and a newly erected art deco monstrosity universally known as the "Fuck Me hotel" (for the response it provokes from motorists). Joey returns from, um, an enforced absence to discover that the venerable town pub has become a "wine bar" called Doc Oc's, and the main street is festooned with signs for an upcoming festival: "Scotsfield Breakaway Bonanza -- cominatcha!"
None of this can really be regarded as parody; while "Call Me the Breeze" is often very funny and is rich in ironies, almost all of it, for better or worse, is believable. As Joey begins to realize, perhaps too late, his real talent is not for Hesse-like metaphysics or Ginsbergian rant or black-and-white John Cassavetes ripoffs, but as an observer and chronicler of his actual surroundings, "a trashy and sinister country-and-western Ireland of murder, paranoia and sentiment." In his pie-eating corpulence and his failed quest for self-knowledge, Joey feels like an Old Country cousin to Ignatius J. Reilly, the hero of "A Confederacy of Dunces" (or, more to the point, of John Kennedy Toole, Reilly's self-destructive creator).
Joey's obsessions, his grand ambitions and his oversize artistic visions never quite compute in the real world, either in Scotsfield or anywhere else. When success finally finds him -- for an autobiographical novel he perceives as the outpourings of a tormented soul -- it is unexpected and based on a gross misunderstanding. Whether McCabe means "Call Me the Breeze" as an allegory about Ireland's struggle with the 21st century or the paradoxical nature of creativity I am not sure. Nor does it matter; it is about both things and it is close -- very close -- to being a masterpiece.
-- Andrew O'Hehir