THE TROUBLE WITH PUSSY

One ought to meet Patrick “Pussy” Braden, the dress-wearing, trick-turning narrator of Patrick McCabe’s latest novel, Breakfast on Pluto, if only for the experience. He begins his story—ostensibly told to his psychiatrist Terence, a.k.a. “Dr. Essence Of Insight”—at Christmas time, with his mustachioed foster mother screaming, “Stop tearing the arse out of that turkey!” and Pussy proudly awarding himself and his kin the “ALL-IRELAND FUNCTIONAL FAMILY OF THE CENTURY AWARD! So congratulations, Hairy Ma and all your little out-of-wedlock kids!”

Of course, at this point, things are only getting started. It is the early ’70s—the height of the so-called “Troubles” and IRA violence—and Pussy lives in the small, Irish town of Tyreelin, situated precariously on the border between north and south. He is not-unreasonably obsessed with his father, Father Bernard, and writes endless school essays (with titles like “Father Bernard Rides Again”) about the rape of his real mother—whom he likens to screen-actress Mitzi Gaynor. Eventually, Pussy actually begins to dress like Mitzi Gaynor (part of some strange search for his mother?) and takes on with a prominent politician, who is promptly murdered. It’s off to London now, where he shops for “crushed velvet purple loon pants” by day and, by night, works a corner at Piccadilly Circus. He takes on all variety of lovers—some male, some female, some harmless, some psychopathic, one called Brendan Huggy Bear. He stalks his father.

Pussy makes it back to Tyreelin—barely—but not before finding one of his best friends, Irwin, “eliminated” by the IRA and then himself, innocent Puss, trapped in the middle of a Republican bombing campaign. Chapter titles reveal the narrator’s ever-questionable state of mind: “Busy Men Prepare to Blow Up London and Get Pussy into Trouble”; “Ooh, Bomber!”; and “It’s Bombing Night and I Haven’t Got a Thing to Wear.”

Now, aside from acknowledging the fact that Patrick “Pussy” Braden is a literary companion in the way that methamphetamines are a quiet way to spend an evening, it seems only fair to ask: What does all this add up to? It was the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney who warned his Irish compatriots, “Whatever You Say Say Nothing.” And, unfortunately, McCabe seems to have taken him at his word. For sure, Breakfast on Pluto—shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize and McCabe’s fifth novel—is a linguistic tour de force. Few writers on the planet can deliver a monologue as elaborate, shocking, funny and pitch-black as McCabe. He proved that with The Butcher Boy, whose narrator, the indomitable Francie Brady, was just as windy, hell-bent and optimistic as Pussy could ever be. But behind all the words there has to be some insight. There are desperate moments—such as when Pussy hears that his politician boyfriend’s head and shoulders were found in the river—when all the reader gets are lines like, “Well, excuse me, darlings, while I wet myself.”

Partly what is at work, of course, is the disconnect between the comforting, upbeat world inside Pussy’s head and the surrounding madness and mayhem. The title, also the name of a chart hit for Don Partridge in 1969, is meant to suggest that Pussy’s disconnect is so large he might as well be having breakfast on Pluto. But that’s interesting only up to a point. After all, most people need to separate themselves in one way or another from modern life in order to survive—hence our obsession with the television and the movies. The Butcher Boy (which was brilliantly adapted to film last year by Ireland’s acclaimed director Neil Jordan) introduced Francie’s madness more slyly and then forced his hallucinatory existence slowly, inevitably into a tragic collision with reality. Breakfast on Pluto fails to achieve such denouement. Instead, Pussy inexplicably fades in and out, periodically dropping the glam-rock and sarcasm for moments of straight-ahead, heartbreaking observation (moments which temptingly suggest a building clarity), only to regress soon after into the absurd.

Nothing is as it seems, that much is clear—not when barroom oglers lift up Pussy’s skirt, not when Irwin denies his serious involvement with the IRA, not even when the bomb explodes in London. As Puss narrates, tellingly, in the third person: “If anyone had been observing Puss, they would surely have said: ‘Why is she laughing, for heaven’s sake? Doesn’t she realize she ought to be dead?’” In the end, this is what Breakfast on Pluto reads like: an uncomfortable and inappropriate, funereal chuckle.

When, amidst the rubble, the truth of his situation finally dawns on him, though, Puss only remarks: “I must be practically beside the point of detonation and my tights are in ribbons. I must get a new pair! I really must!”

Breakfast on Pluto by Patrick McCabe (HarperCollins, 202 pages)
Icon (Iowa City), January 1999