Book Review: 'The Holy City' by Patrick McCabe

By Daniel Mallory
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 18, 2009


By Patrick McCabe

Bloomsbury. 212 pp. $15

Best known to American audiences for "The Butcher Boy" and "Breakfast on Pluto" -- both shortlisted for the Booker Prize, both dramatized by Neil Jordan -- Patrick McCabe has distinguished himself as a craftsman of so-called bog Gothic: Irish literature that revels in grotesquerie, splicing gut-punch violence with raven-black comedy. It's a genre only a stylist could love, and "The Holy City" -- grimy, gaudy and warped as stained glass -- is bog Gothic at its boggiest.

This strange, strobing burlesque, equal parts psychedelia and psychosis, chronicles the life and crimes of Chris McCool, at 67 a "refined boulevardier of some local distinction." Fitfully, like a faulty spigot, McCool ("just call me Pops") spouts forth with wearisome brio on his young adulthood in Cullymore, today an anodyne Dublin suburb but 40 years ago a rural village where "everything seemed to twist and turn by the day [and] each random gesture seemed freighted with immense significance, every glance a semaphore reflecting the labyrinthine, complex intensity of suppressed passions within."

Allusive, elusive, above all effusive, Pops cheerfully name-checks icons of the Swinging Sixties -- Roger Moore, Serge Gainsbourg, crushed-velvet blazers and Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes -- as he recounts his ignoble birth, the spiritual malaise of his adolescence and ultimately his infatuation with Marcus Otoyo, a grim Nigerian Catholic on whom the young McCool fixated in a "myopia of hopeless belief and longing" and whose memory inspires a rapturous obsession in Pops's later years.

Or maybe not. The architecture of "The Holy City" -- halls of mirrors with trompe l'oeil ceilings and trapdoors yawning underfoot -- is vintage McCabe, and the addled memoirist his signature narrator. Like his countryman and champion, the vastly overpraised John Banville, McCabe prefers the sensual to the sensible. Also like Banville, he writes fresh-bruise prose, purple and swollen. On beholding Marcus in church, the boy's voice "like a seraph's wing, in its flaming beauty," Pops is transported to "an ancient marbled city, through whose streets I could see him proudly move as crusaders bent the knee outside its gates . . . as beautiful to them as the vanished molten sunsets of childhood." Later, after a single word ruptures their friendship, Pops wonders whether "in this clean new century, this world of white wax," a man "might continue to remain anonymous, to abide in a world of weightless, floating orbs."

Does McCabe take his overwrought story seriously? Who knows. The novel neither rewards nor invites scrutiny. Pops speaks glancingly of his years in a psychiatric institution, where specters scuttle through the air ducts, yet there's too much method in his madness. This isn't the authentically mutinous mind of, say, a Humbert Humbert or even the Butcher Boy himself, but rather a writerly contraption, poised and pliable as a spring. "The Holy City" is a tale without "the discipline, the reason and rigor," as our narrator observes of himself, and its most grievous omission is reason. We close the book wondering not what we've read but whether in fact we've read anything at all.

Mallory researches modernist literature at New College, Oxford.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company