The title of Patrick McCabe’s ambitious and disturbing new novel is a compressed and smoothed-out rendering of the Gaelic words for ‘kiss’, ‘my’ and ‘arse’. Even readers of a non-Celtic persuasion are likely to recognise it, whether from Buck Mulligan’s attack on stage Irishry in Ulysses (‘Pogue mahone! Acushla machree! It’s destroyed we are from this day!’) or from the name of the rambunctious punk-folk band fronted by snaggle-toothed rhapsode Shane MacGowan, who may have imbibed the Joyce line with his mother’s milk, or picked it up during his brief residency at Westminster School. Anyway, it promises a certain rough hilarity and a pricking of pomposity (Mulligan is interrupting Stephen Dedalus at his most insufferable), and that’s part of what McCabe has to offer, to be sure.
However, admirers of McCabe’s fiction will know that his work’s undeniably comic elements tend to swagger, or stagger, alongside darker ones: there will be deformity, madness, violence, lost children, deaths foretold, bleak prophecies fulfilled. His antic narrators generally turn out to be not just unreliable but certifiable; the Troubles loom large in small edgeland towns and cast long shadows across the decades and over the sea. So the title’s allusion to the osculum profanum of heretics and devil-worshippers may also be relevant.
The principal narrator is one Dan Fogarty, who is marooned in the genteel Cliftonville district of Margate, where his dementia-afflicted sister Una is preparing to put on some kind of mad panto at the care home where she and (possibly) Dan now live. By a wild coincidence, fellow residents include the siblings’ former next-door neighbours from a lurid period in the 1970s, when they shared a ‘crash pad’ in Kilburn with an ever-changing line-up that included Una’s faithless boyfriend Troy.
It soon becomes clear that what we have in our hands (or, given its hefty 600-odd pages, on our desks) is a peculiar kind of haunted-house drama. Even allowing for the excesses of the time, the casualty rate (both from acid and otherwise) at 45 Brondesbury Gardens, NW6 (aka the Mahavishnu Anarchist Temple) is enough to raise a few eyebrows among the local constabulary. The unquiet spirits of past residents find it hard to leave the scene of their demise or disgrace, and subject those who move in after them to whispers and apparitions. In Kilburn, at a Soho drinking club run by Dan and Una’s aunt Nano and, later on, in the care home, ‘real’ characters – Brendan Behan, Peter Sarstedt, Angela Carter, Shuggie Otis, Bobby Moore, Margaret Rutherford – rub shoulders with, and frequently blur into, apparently fictional ones. In the midst of all this is Dan, an engaging enough presence but a far from benevolent one, whose interest in the gruagach, a sort of mischievous goblin, and other imps and demons, to say nothing of his on-the-face-of-it puzzling belief that he was never really born, starts to raise troubling questions.
At this point, more sceptical readers, their Patrick McCabe bingo cards heavily hatched with crosses, may well be girding their loins to launch into a cry of ‘House!’ This is all a bit overcooked, they may say. We’re all haunted by our roaring twenties and our doleful futures; we all have a little secret room in the attic that nobody knows about. So what? The novel is certainly a shade overdetermined, with a regular stream of defenestrations, humiliations, visitations and terminations arriving on cue, waved smoothly along the tarmac by the authorial traffic control system. But I think McCabe is attempting something different from the finely tuned gothic chamber music of his earlier work: he’s aiming for a kind of polyphony. Characters aren’t quite sure who or even how many people they are at any given moment. Una herself, who in the first half of the book functions as a central-casting wronged girlfriend (and, slightly queasily, as a strange sort of love object for Dan), begins to speak with her own voice, and it’s quickly apparent that there is more to her, in every sense, than initially meets the eye. (It’s perhaps a little glib, but hardly irrelevant, to make a marginal note at this point about the fragmentation of the self that afflicts dementia sufferers.)
The book itself is haunted – by allusions to McCabe’s other work (to the impossible allure of a Mott the Hoople gig evoked in The Dead School, to the visions of Jerusalem in The Holy City, to the half-seen acts of evil in Winterwood) and by a fistful of literary modernists (not just Joyce but also Eliot, tinkering away on The Waste Land in Cliftonville; Yeats and Lady Gregory, harvesting, pickling and bottling Irish folklore; Peter Weiss and his Marat/Sade; E E Cummings, whose ‘Buffalo Bill ’s’ is quoted or paraphrased in several places). The text is almost entirely typeset in short lines cascading down the centre of the page; this brings a certain heightening of intensity, a faint echo of the stichomythia of Greek tragedy. It’s also an undeniably effective way to render the splintered thoughts and memories of the characters. Overall, though, the effect is one of alienation – not that the book isn’t a tremendous pleasure to read, albeit at times slightly uncomfortable. ‘Our national epic has yet to be written,’ all the young literary dudes opine in Ulysses. Poguemahone isn’t ‘about’ Ireland (though it is profoundly ‘about’ the Irish diaspora). But it is a particularly modern kind of epic.