By JOHN FREEMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001
In 1990, Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho ignited a firestorm of praise, disgust, and well-timed (for book sales) controversy. Unfortunately, many readers assumed that Ellis endorsed his character's bloody rampage. It would be a shame if the same misunderstanding occurs with Emerald Germs of Ireland, Patrick McCabe's grisly and hilarious tragicomedy about a man who kills his mother, and then fells 50 other denizens of his small town in a frenzied effort to cover his crime. Beneath the novel's surface of violence and mayhem lurks a poignant vision of quotidian life, full of heart, humor and hallucinatory prose.
At the center of this whirling dervish of a story is 45-year-old Pat McNab, an aspiring musician who lives at home with his domineering mother in the Irish village of Gullytown, or "The Town of Liars," as he calls it. Pat bitterly resents his mundane place in life, and Emerald Germs of Ireland is actually a long cock-and-bull tale in which he vents that anger. We soon learn that he has offed his Mummy with a thwack of a frying pan. In subsequent chapters, we follow Pat on his odyssey to do away with anyone who discovers his dirty secret. Each scene is prefaced by an appropriate ballad, from "Whisky on a Sunday" (for the chapter in which Pat murders a woman who excoriates him for drinking) to "South of the Border" (for the chapter in which Pat takes peyote and imagines that he embarks on a dangerous Mexican border crossing).
McCabe's imagination roams freely in Emerald Germs of Ireland, challenging even those readers deeply steeped in Irish lore. Fans of The Butcher Boy know that McCabe, like Joyce, works to capture the musicality of Ireland's language, from the blarney of barroom drunks to the lilting tones of a favored aunt. As the novel progresses, however, the scenes grow weirder and wilder: Pat's Irish playmates begin to speak with Mexican accents. And every man in Gullytown apparently had a fling with Pat's mother, a rumor which incites more killing in the Mummy-obsessed Pat. McCabe blurs the line between fact and fantasy, an effect compounded by the syncopated flow of his sentences. Furthermore, McCabe clutters his story with allusions to movies, literature and especially anthologies of Irish melodies that circulated in the '40's and '50's. As with these songs, there is a too-sweet quality to McCabe's prose, one which is deliberate yet distracting.
What ultimately saves this novel from being unintelligible are Pat's tortured memories of childhood. We peer behind the scrim of his rant, to grasp the truth of how he became such a sad, sick, angry man. He suffered at the hands of a moody father, a cruel schoolmaster, and friends who abused him. Most of all, he endured the taunts of his mother. With energy and verve, Emerald Germs of Ireland explores the gap between that country's sentimental ballads and the jagged experiences of one of her sons. The result is a dizzying novel, teeming with brilliantly odd yarns, rich with sorrow.
- John Freeman is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.
Emerald Germs of Ireland
By Patrick McCabe