Patrick McCabe’s The Dead School seems narrated by a demented Mother Goose who delights in the suffering of others. “Hello there, Boys and Girls,” the voice begins, “and I hope you’re all well. The story I have for you this morning is all about two teachers and the things they got up to in the days gone by.” What follows is a witty and nasty shocker that probes the still-uncreated conscience of the Irish race.
The Dead School is McCabe’s third novel (but only his second in the U.S., following The Butcher Boy, a gruesomely hilarious portrait of the homicidal psychotic as a young man). Something of McCabe’s philosophy of fiction was set forth in a New York Times interview two years ago when, in response to a claim that he had violated several of Henry James’ cardinal principles of fiction, he said, “That’s a bunch of junk, class- based arrogant nonsense….James left America because there was nothing left to write about because it didn’t have dukes and earls. I’m sure he would criticize and I’m sure I wouldn’t care.”
In accordance with this belief, McCabe exhibits an affinity for American pop culture common to his generation of Irish writers, among them The Commitments‘ Roddy Doyle and “Night in Tunisia” author Neil Jordan. The Dead School is set in the mid-’70s, when central character Malachy Dudgeon gets his first whiff of the sexual revolution and adopts the pose of an American hipster: “I mean, just what was going on or who in the hell did Malachy think he was now, Jack Nicholson coming in the college gates sporting a pair of shades he’d just bought in the Dandelion market in Grafton Street? Clicking his fingers and puffing on his rollup well now, man, wasn’t he just the cheese.”
Malachy is a phony prophet trying on a persona ill-suited to his own working-class Dublin roots. Like so many Irish youths who came of age in the ’60s, he’s embarrassed by the Ireland of whitewashed country cottages and rebel pub ballads. His head is full of American trash and the refrain of “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep,” an obscure, irresistibly silly pop song about a mother bird who leaves the nest. “Is that really your favorite song?” Malachy often asks his future wife, who of course has taken its message to heart. Ironically, in spite of his superficial worldliness, Malachy fails to understand the power of pop music on impressionable minds.
Malachy teaches at a Catholic boys’ school, St. Anthony’s, named after the patron saint of the lost. In this case, what’s lost are the ideals of those who fought for a pristine Catholic state and don’t know how to lay down the sword once the battle is over. Malachy’s peers want to forget the revolution and get on with the fun, but St. Anthony’s Headmaster Raphael Bell is of the generation shaped by the horrors of the Black and Tan era. The forces of good, for Raphael, are represented by the church and sad songs about Irish girls who leave their families, go to America, and are never heard from again. He idealizes his father, a “proud and noble soldier who died a noble death in an Irish field beneath an Irish sky.” His tragedy is pure, his vision of the past unsullied by complexity or ambiguity; evil is fronted by feminism (i.e., divorce and abortion) and rock ‘n’ roll. To him, Malachy represents a second invasion of the barbarians, this one coming from the west and more subversive than the British because it can’t be literally confronted.
Malachy, meanwhile, cannot deal with his students, who are versed in their headmaster’s Fenian fanaticism and who recognize their teacher’s facile hipness for the weakness that it is. As in The Butcher Boy, the resulting tragedy has the sad air of inevitability, as the dreams of both Malachy and Raphael end in an alcoholic whimper.
McCabe isn’t sentimental about Ireland’s past, and given the power the teachers of a dead theology still exert on his countrymen, he’s properly skeptical about the future. If you’ve ever shed a tear upon hearing “Galway Bay,” avoid McCabe as you would a draught of Guinness not served at room temperature.
McCabe reads from The Dead School at 7 p.m. Friday, May 5, at Chapters, 1512 K St. NW.