Irish novels always prove interesting reads to me, in that they take on a poetic sensibility. But they often dwell in what seems insular fashion on Irish idioms, culture, and places to a degree that keeps me running to keep up, as if I’m experiencing life there in an all too exotic manner. As a result, I find it hard to lose myself in such stories.
I should say at the outset that this book of McCabe’s reminds me a lot of several of Ian McEwan’s books. That’s not a criticism of either person’s work – rather it’s a literary motif that seems prevalent in the Isles these days, one of seeking a person’s place in a long-established, slowly morphing society.
McCabe’s novel, winner of The Irish Novel of the Year Award in 2008, is such a book, but with a few charming twists. The story centers on first person narrator, Chris McCool, a sixty-seven year-old from Cullymore, who had a blast four decades earlier, during the exhilarating, notorious Sixties. And being Mr. Wonderful to songstress Dolly McCausland back then simply iced his cake.
But CJ, as he was known, overreached his elated state during those days by attempting to forge a friendship with a young black man, Marcus Otoyo, who seemed to share his passion for Catholicism (something Protestant Dolly couldn’t give CJ) and the sensibilities of British literature, particularly that of Joyce and Stevenson. But Marcus eventually disappointed, as did Dolly.
The story is that of an aging McCool flashing back on this past, even as he attempts to resurrect his earlier life with current Croatian lover, Vesna Krapotnik. Vesna ultimately disappoints as well, but CJ’s mellowing allows forgiveness this time, something he couldn’t manage with Dolly. CJ’s life quest, ironically, turns out to be found, not in Dolly nor Vesna nor Marcus, but in the much recurring metaphor of The Holy City, a magical locale of the mind in which McCool might find the pathway to an open and honest heart.
McCabe’s story and principal character toy with fabulism throughout, particularly at story’s end. And he punctuates this with passing references to a formerly idyllic Ireland, in which life had gone on much as usual for centuries, each village its own universe. But in today’s world, CJ must struggle with Ireland’s surrender to the ephemeral substance of commerciality and materialism. In his coping, CJ and McCabe give us the Irish soul’s lyrical, joyous nature along with a darkness that includes rage and murderous intent.
Reading fictive tales from other cultures isn’t necessarily the stuff of immersion and shared identity. Instead, it’s a way of peering past human strangeness to a common depth than can be shared only in dribs and drabs. McCabe seems acutely aware of this narrowing in The Holy City, but he hardly seems daunted by it. In the end, he's given us a powerful novel of human vulnerability, strangeness, and resilience.