'Mondo Desperado': reckless romp

March 19, 2000|By Jonathan Pitts | By Jonathan Pitts,Sun Staff

"Mondo Desperado," by Patrick McCabe. HarperCollins. 228 pages. $24.

A good novel can make the extraordinary believable; a poor one makes even the everyday hard to swallow. Spend a few hours with "Mondo Desperado," the new "serial novel" by Irish author Patrick McCabe, and you're liable to end up reaching for a bottle of Old Blarney.

There's nothing amiss in the concept. McCabe, a two-time finalist for Britain's prestigious Booker Prize and author of both "Breakfast on Pluto" and "The Butcher Boy," serves up oddballs aplenty in this mad, reckless romp of a book. Meet Phildy Hackball, a dissipated B-movie director through whose eyes we see the interwoven tales of 10 characters from Barntrosna town. Greet lost Larry Bunyan, an obsessive milquetoast convinced his wife leads a debauched other life. Get to know Thomas Gully, an old farmer whose bad luck at love expresses itself as boils on his face, or the bishop of Barntrosna, a man haunted by the knowledge he has ordained a priest who is actually the devil in disguise. Forlorn and full of feeling, such characters seem oddly familiar as they trace the trajectory of love gone wrong.

In an introductory note, McCabe writes that "Mondo Desperado" is "like Sherwood Anderson's 'Winesburg, Ohio' -- on drugs." At least in the structural sense, that's true. The principal characters are lenses through which we view that shifting, multifaceted entity known as a small town.

More often, McCabe's eye for the unsightly recalls the savage wit of John Kennedy Toole in "A Confederacy of Dunces." In "The Luck of Dympna Wrigley," the fifth story here, a 35-year-old woman -- saddled with the care of her elderly mum -- resents "[this] wheezing assemblage of badly baked turnover loaves who called herself Mother." In "The Forbidden Love of Noreen Tiernan," the title character yields to the unlikely charms of a nurse whose hair is "a clump of the coarsest mountain gorse," her nose a "weathered, bulbous affair not unlike a species of root vegetable." Such images, to borrow the parlance of yet another character here, amount to "a bullet up the backside of literary complacency."

But are they worth waiting for? The book as a whole takes a dangerous literary chance: It seeks to satirize, through exaggerated imitation, the overblown prose of hack dime-store fiction.

Thus one character feels "deep down inside that his life had become routine, as exciting as a wet dishcloth cast disdainfully onto the tiles of a presbytery floor on some grey November morning." Ponders another: "Who can say what tenebrous arteries one might find winding their way in those mysterious caverns that lurk beneath that cheerfully oblivious main highway that is life?"

Some sentences number 100-plus words, redefining the term "run-on," and McCabe can pile as many as five prepositional phrases end-to-end. From its first page to the last, "Desperado" is so wildly overwritten it can be hard for the reader just to track what's going on.

The line between exploiting a device and succumbing to it is fine; this time out, McCabe never fully chooses what side he's on. So keep that Irish whisky handy: For most readers, there won't be enough gems to make this Emerald-Isle excursion worthwhile.

Jonathan Pitts, a features reporter for The Sun, is a former English instructor and co-author of Whitey Herzog's "You're Missin' a Great Game" (Simon and Schuster, 1999).

Pub Date: 03/19/00

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