Everyone had that one teacher. You know, the one that really got you, the one that you actually learned things from, the one that was effortlessly cool and despite their age, managed to engage an entire class of listless teenagers with their sheer force of personality.
Mine was a fearsome Irish English teacher called Ms. McCormack-John. When she first walked into that classroom in her shiny red Doc Martens and silenced a bully who was busy calling me names for having the temerity to be a lad with long hair, I knew we'd get along.
Ms. McCormack-John liked Irish literature; she took us through Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle and Cal by Bernard MacLaverty (which made me long for a cigarette every time the protagonist lit up).
Ms. McCormack-John gave me As for my short stories and when I left school in a mess, half way through sixth form she slipped a note into my hand.
"Read this." She said.
The note was the title of a book. This book.
This book changed my life
The first thing I noticed about Patrick McCabe's Butcher Boy was its voice; McCabe's Irish-ness is distinct and his narrative unrelenting; a psychotic stream of consciousness that, whilst for some may be blindingly caustic, drew me in to a blurry and distorted world of a boy's descent into madness in the backdrop of small-town Ireland. Ms. McCormack-John knew instinctively that my current state of mind at the time would be a perfect dance partner for McCabe's dark-hearted novel.
The Butcher Boy tells the story of Francie Brady, son of a violent, alcoholic father and mentally unstable mother. To escape this grim reality, Francie retreats into his own mind, a place of comic books and westerns.
Much of the Irish literature in our English lessons held a darkness in their hearts yet the stark sorrow Doyle and Tóbín paled when I read McCabe. This was the under-the-counter Irish stuff they didn't warn you about; Frank McCourt after some botched electro-convulsive therapy. I had never been fully blown away by literature before the moment I finished the Butcher Boy.
As a wayward teenage boy, I identified with Francie Brady, his state of mind as he felt his grip on life begin to tremble. Francie begins to lose everyone close to him; his family are labelled 'Pigs' by a local woman whose son, in turn, takes away Francie's best friend, the deeper he slips into his psychosis. We finish with Francie returning home from institutionalisation of sorts, his mind in tatters, fixated upon old memories and the people who are gone. It's never going to end well...
The wonderful thing about this book, is just how entrenched you get into its protagonist's head. After putting it down, I found my thought rattling, jangling around the inside of my skull as if dictated by McCabe himself. You pity Francie, you laugh with him (and believe me, there are many laughs to be had!), you feel his loss, his desperation, you are on his side as his world crumbles beneath him and most of all, you fall with him into the whirling, black pit of insanity, you do it together. Your hearts break in perfect synchronicity.
The Butcher Boy showed me how to break the rules of literature, to mix the normal and the absurd, the conscious and unconscious, to pour out undiluted hope, loss and heartbreak in an unrelenting tide of pitch-black water, punctuated with music, comic books, films in a sort of maniacal poetry. McCabe has even coined his own genre - 'Bog Gothic' (an affectionate term!).
I have, so far in my life never read a book that has resonated so strongly with me. I think I have owned at least ten copies of this book, pressing it into bewildered people's hands at parties, imploring them to just read it. In fact, just looking for a copy now, to find a quote has proved fruitless. I love this book so much, I cannot own it.
The Butcher Boy undoubtedly lit a rocket under my arse and pushed me forward in my want to write, my need to write. This book feels like it has come from somewhere dark, some untapped vessel somewhere deep and buried. Whilst not autobiographical, McCabe has used much of his early experience as inspiration for this novel and it shows.
It showed me that, as a writer, especially of horror, crime and other unsavoury subjects, that tapping into the grimness of real life is essential to make a story believable, to give it undiluted authenticity. That's not to say that every horror writer must have had bad experiences to be legitimate, far from it; but to truly experience horror is to look in the dark places within humanity, to be able to look upon that whirling pit of insanity and to draw from it, to tap it and splay that blackness into words. Anyone can look into that place.
I know I haven't spoken too much about the plot of The Butcher Boy but I don't want to spoil it and a great many of you will be wondering what exactly is so good about a grim account of young boy's descent into madness?
Everything I tell, you everything. Because life is not pretty, there aren't many happy endings and more often than not, the darkness of the human soul prevails.
"...one day you looked and the person you knew was gone. And instead there was a half-ghost sitting there who had only one thing to say: All the beautiful things of this world are lies. They count for nothing in the end.”