The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe
I was having rather a dry spell of reading—kept putting book after book aside. So I figured it was time to turn, again, to the Irish. What it is with these Irish writers? How do they manage to pierce so directly and mercilessly into the human heart?
It took me longer than I wanted it to before I found the slipstream of The Butcher Boy. McCabe wastes no time in getting you inside the mind and body of Francie Brady, and I found myself resisting because I had an uneasy feeling that this was not going to end well. But it is a testimony to McCabe’s writing that he captures us, unwilling as we might be, and we experience a life we would never willingly choose to live, come to understand the logic of that life, and the outer regions that pain will push us to.
Francie Brady lives in a small, unnamed Irish town during the late fifties and early sixties. His father is an alcoholic and his mother is suicidal. As a young boy, he is just an oddball, goofing around with his friend Joe. But as he grows older, he doesn’t shed any of his strangeness. Rather, he is more and more in the grip of mental illness.
But Francie is perceptive. He knows what’s going on more clearly, perhaps, than anyone in the town, which might be exactly why people think he’s crazy. Increasingly the townspeople give him a wide berth, interact with him in superficial ways, and imagine that he is too strange to notice their judgments. But of course he does notice:
H’ho no ladies, I’m back in action yes indeed a puff of smoke and here he is again the incredible Francie Brady—How are you ladies? They couldn’t make up their minds who was going to speak. Little coughs and all this and one looking at the other—you say hello to him. No—you do! It went on like that for a minute or two. I think they thought I was going to pull a machine gun out from under my coat drrr die you dogs.
I laughed through much of this book because Francie is so unedited in his thinking and in his speech.
Francie is in the crosshairs of the local police and multiple times gets arrested by a sergeant he describes this way:
The sergeant reminded me of the clown in Duffy’s circus not the way he looked but when he talked. Especially when he was telling you all the terrible things were going to happen to you now. H’ho! he’d say. And H’haw! Just the same as Sausage the clown. H’ho yewer an awfull man altogedder, Sausage’d say and away off round the ring with his stripey legs flying. Him and the sergeant must have been born in the same town or something.
After the sergeant (who Francie now calls Sausage) arrests him for one of his many minor crimes, Francie is sent to a home for delinquents run by the Catholic Church. Brother Sullivan, who Francie renames Tiddly, is the inevitable resident pedophile, and has Francie in his sights and in his clutches. Francie will do almost anything for Tiddly because Tiddly gives him Rolos. And Francie knows exactly what is going on—he’s completely in charge of the trade because he is after the Rolos:
Tiddly said wouldn’t it be lovely if we could get married. I said it would be great. I could buy you flowers and chocolates and you could have dinner ready when I come home he says. Ha ha I laughed, like a girl, and did Tiddly like that! Little Miss Snowdrop, I said, Queen of All The Beautiful Things in the World!, and that nearly drove him astray in the head altogether. The sweat hopped off him. Flip, in went the Rolos.
Again, I laughed out loud. How often I laughed is one of the strange and brilliant things about The Butcher Boy.
Francie’s alienation from everyone, and from his childhood friend Joe in particular, pushes him not just to crazy behavior, but to increasingly sinister, and ultimately violent acts. Throughout the book, anxiety builds and there is a whining violent tension right beneath the surface that left me constantly squirming. McCabe writes Francie’s speech and thought with very little punctuation, causing you to feel a kind of mania that increases in speed as the book nears its end.
In the nights I would lie there hatching all my plans and schemes for when I got out. It was hard to hatch anything with all them bogmen around me. Soon as the lights went out, wheeze, wheeze. Quit breathing youse bastards!, I wanted to say but you never knew when Bubble was lurking down below with his torch. I’d build a raft that was the first thing and send her sailing down the river. Off we’d go, who knew where we’d wind up? A tree house, what about that? That was good. Joe above pacing up and down on guard blam with the Winchester Die dogs of crows! There was a warehouse up at the old railway, we could make a Nazi Headquarters there. I was as bad as the sparks in the boiler-house stove with all these notions tearing about in my head. You’d only be half-finished with one idea and the next thing here would come along another one, no I’m a better idea what about me it would say.
Really. It’s astonishing and hilarious and awful all at the same time. He’s so aware and such a survivor and in every possible way doesn’t belong and never will, which is why he won’t survive.
At heart, what Francie experiences is being accepted only when he is acceptable. But when he is himself, with all of his pain, no one wants to hear him cry. He says:
I wanted to stand on the Diamond and cry out: Can you hear me? but I didn’t know what it was I wanted them to hear.
His childhood friend Joe has finally rejected him outright and Francie finally understands there’s nothing he can do to win Joe’s friendship back. He’s lost his last friend on earth. This was, for me, one of the saddest internal monologues of Francie in the book, entirely without punctuation:
…when I heard him say it that was when I started to feel myself draining away and I couldn’t stop it the more I tried the worse it got I could have floated to the ceiling like a fag paper please Joe come with me that was all I wanted to say dumb people have holes in the pit of their stomachs and that’s the way I was now the dumbest person in the whole world who had no words left for anything at all.
This from the one who has had nothing but words up until this moment.
McCabe got inside this young man so fully that I understood him, understood why he was driven to do what he did, and I could imagine doing it myself—that’s the horror of it. What happens is both sad and inevitable. And, from the perspective of Francie—and from my perspective as Francie—it makes complete sense.
This is a gorgeously written, starkly told tale. It spares nothing of beauty or sorrow. I closed the book a different person that when I opened it. For that—and for the experience of being lost in such a frighteningly real world—I feel grateful.
You can buy The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe at your local bookstore, get it at the library, or order it online at:
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 >