Saturday, January 13, 2007


This week I had much occasion to sit and wait. First, for attention from the medical profession; then, for attention from the legal profession. In the first instance it was attention sought due to an unexplained loss of hearing in my right ear -- very dismal for a non-stop music listener such as myself and making this new year unusually tuneless thus far. In the second, it was attention required by a jury selection process -- which relinquished me from duty when they heard the trial would conflict with start-up day at Yale (indicating, perhaps, a professional courtesy I was glad to take advantage of).

During both waiting processes I read Patrick McCabe's Breakfast on Pluto (1998), a book ideally suited for such settings. The "novel" consists of a series of vignettes, almost "black-outs" in the comic tradition, shorter than short stories, ostensibly penned by a cross-dressing Irish ragamuffin turned prostitute named Patrick Braden, but happier to answer to Paddy Pussy, who finds himself unwittingly suspected of being an IRA bomber during his stay in London in the mid '70s. The book breezes by because Pussy is so brazen and so cheeky and so in-your-face entertaining. Only occasionally does McCabe rub our noses in unpalatable acts of violence -- to add gravitas to what would otherwise be nowt but flashy fluff -- while generally allowing Pussy to put the glibbest spin on the gut-wrenching world he lives in and the depressing as hell world he comes from. Aptly called "grimly amusing" by one reviewer, the book's fascination relies on the balancing act between the random and pitiless violence and the effervescent zing with which Pussy recounts the details of his sordid lifestyle, a hand-to-mouth existence dressed-up, as Pussy is herself, in the best glam-camp available.

The realities of the story are contrasted to two fantasy lenses: 1) the dastardly doings of his alleged father -- a Catholic priest who raped Pussy's mother while she served temporarily as scullion in the randy cleric's home; fantasy, because Pussy recreates the story as he conceives it to have occurred, not having gotten it from any witness or participant. McCabe lets the zest of Pussy's gleeful ire soar in his renditions of this terrible blow to his innocent mum's sanctity, the cause of the consequent lack of any real home for the abandoned-as-a-child Patrick, which leads us to: 2) the saintly visions of the mummy-machree-that-got-away, if only she could be reunited with her own palpitating Pussy, er, I mean, find and love her bonvivant baby boy-girl.

McCabe is good at keeping the voice alive, but Pussy's preeminent tic is to invert sentence structure and to wield a slang vocabulary in inflated terms that at times treads upon the fascistic boots of our Alex, O my brothers. Deliberate as the day, I'm sure (of course Kubrick's film gets a mention in setting up the cultural referents for young Pussy's apprenticeship to the boutique fashions of the early '70s), and indicative of the more cunning intent of the enterprise which seems to be -- perhaps -- to suggest that the blither-than-thou world of '70s pop glam is -- as the headbands and facepaint of the Flower Power era were to Vietnam and the racial riot realities of the '60s -- simply a screamingly extreme "acting up" reaction to the "old Ultraviolence" of bombings, killings, and guerilla tactics known as The Troubles. Holding the two visions together at once in the institutionalized (for a time) ravings of one daft mick is McCabe's achievement, giving Pussy just enough soul to make us trust her.

The problem with seeing everything from Pussy's view and in her language is that no other characters are able to rise above caricature, though in our brief acquaintance with them -- such as a John Fogarty-lookalike who meets a horrible end amidst comic deflation, or Pussy's one friend, a girl called Charlie, who lives a more traditional life parallel to Pussy's -- the details are sharply illuminated, like television. Fitting, since the book runs by like the nightly news: graphic misfortune amidst slickly fascinating allure.

They put you down, they say I'm wrong
Your fancy things, you put them on,
You're a rebel rebel . . .
--David Bowie, "Rebel Rebel" (1974)


Anonymous said...

Irish director Neil Jordan turned this into a very nice film in 2005.

Pat Braden is not called Pussy in the movie, though. His/her name is Kitten, which takes out a lot of the fun. Nevertheless, I found it well worth watching and the Irish accent is the cherry on top.

Donald Brown said...

Thanks, I knew about the movie, but didn't see it (though I did see "The Butcher Boy"). My daughter, who read "Breakfast," then saw the movie, was rather disappointed by it. Apparently they changed the plot point about the priest (Neeson?) which changes the matters considerably. I imagine I'll rent the DVD now that I've read it.