Breakfast On Pluto by Patrick McCabe
Years ago I was sitting in the bar of a Holiday Inn right off the freeway in Boston. It wasn’t exactly a dive, but it was a chain hotel near the airport. It wasn’t much and the free popcorn was poured out of five gallon bags into a trough for scooping. You get the picture. Then all of a sudden, five middle-aged people at a table next to me started singing. Gorgeously. Irish tunes. For the fun of it. Or because it was what they knew to do in bars. I’d never heard anything like it—in a bar or otherwise. The Irish. It seems they come out of the womb either telling stories or singing or both. So if I’m ever in a reading slump I simply pick a book, any book, written by an Irish author: Seamus Heaney, Ann Enright, Roddy Doyle, Colm Tóibín, Iris Murdoch, Colum McCann, Claire Keegan, Patrick McCabe. Oh Patrick McCabe!
So, I return to Patrick McCabe and his fabulous novel Breakfast On Pluto, which at under 200 pages can be read in a rainy afternoon. I couldn’t put it down and read many of the more hilarious bits to myself out loud.
Breakfast on Pluto follows the misadventures of Patrick "Pussy" Braden, a transvestite prostitute on a quest to find love and a place to call home. Set during the 1970s, during the time of “The Troubles” in Ireland, when bombing by the IRA was frequent and indiscriminate, Pussy narrates his own story from what we come to discover is a psychiatric hospital where his psychiatrist, Dr. Terrence, urges him to write.
Pussy is the product of an encounter between the village priest and his beautiful teenaged housekeeper. Abandoned by his mother and unable to contact his father, Pussy is raised by "Whiskers," a chain-smoking, beer-guzzling foster mother. When Pussy begins demonstrating a penchant for women's clothing and female impersonations, he is booted out of his house. But he continues to look for his birth mother. He knows who his father is, and writes him letters urging him to meet for a conversation, and, those efforts leading nowhere, gets no small pleasure in parading around town making the priest uncomfortable. Pussy writes:
Father Bernard...must have been tormented, not only by my persistently vindictive missives but by the sight of me strutting about town in the ostentatious manner I did.
McCabe leads us headfirst into Braden’s world of transvestism and transgenderism by removing traditional mediating devices of storytelling and allowing us to directly inhabit Pussy’s thoughts and life. We directly experience his feelings, as in his description of the pleasure he gets from dressing in women’s clothes:
“Look at Braden the eejit dressed up as a woman!” Which I rarely was, to be honest with you—although not from lack of desire!—and made do mostly with a pearl necklace or one of Charlie’s mother’s blouses. Still—it was better than nothing! And sometimes she’d bring out a perfume spray to squirt all around the hut and make it smell just fabulous! “Nothing like perfume for taking all your cares away!” I’d say and do a twirl.
The indomitable nature of his spirit is present from his childhood, as he feels no compunction when exploring the boundaries of his gender identity. He speaks breathlessly of his desires and his discoveries, and his unshaded and enthusiastic honesty is both hilarious and moving. Early on he eagerly describes the joys of acquiring makeup and clothes and, then, a final desire:
…my arms I filled with Max Factor, Johnson’s Baby Oil, Blinkers eye-shadow, Oil of Olay, Silvikrin Alpine Herb Shampoo, Eau de toilette, body moisturizers, body washes, cleansing creams, St. Laurent Eye and Lip make-up, Noxema Skin Cream and Cover Girl Professional Mascara. Not to mention clothes!… “Haven’t you got enough, for fuck’s sake?” said Charlie, but I thought I had only started! Is it any wonder that she never fell for me? “Please kiss it,” I begged her, oh, so many times. “My one-eyed, one-horned, purple people-poking Peter,” but she just laughed and said “No! Why should I! When all you want is the impossible—a vagina all your own!” And to that—what could I possibly say when it was true?
There must be 1,500 exclamation points in the 199 pages of this book and you come quickly to love Pussy's voice.
Searching for his birth mother, Pussy winds up in London where he finds himself hustling in Piccadilly Circus. Although decidedly apolitical, the terminally exuberant Pussy cannot help being drawn into the terror around him as his friends and lovers are murdered and bombings become a regular occurrence. As he flirts with a soldier in a club one night, a bomb explodes, blowing the soldier to ribbons. When Pussy is arrested on suspicion of planting the bomb, he begins to lose his already tenuous hold on reality.
Near the end of the book, his psychiatrist advises him about what it will take for him to survive all that he’s experienced:
“You'll have to learn to forgive," he said. "For if you don't, you know what will happen?” "What, Doctor?" I croaked, for my outburst had exhausted me. "It will destroy you," he said as he handed me the tea. A tear came into my eye when he said it for I knew it was true and I would have loved to be able to do it (not because of its destroying me but because it was right, and deep down I knew that) but I couldn't and the more I thought of it the more the blood came coursing to my head so that whenever I'd write I'd find myself clutching the pencil so tight I broke the lead how many times I don't know, hundreds.
This small interaction holds so much about our common humanity. I know the feeling of clutching the pencil so tight against the truth. I feel kinship with this character with whom I seem to have so little in common. His honest acknowledgment that he can’t forgive stares at me, almost as if asking “can you?”
The story is outrageous, hilarious, and unaffected. Despite being published 25 years ago and set in a time thirty years before that, it is profoundly relevant now. It has plenty to say and although it goes down easily, it lands with the terrible resonance of a severe and necessary telling of what’s true.
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >