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MONDO DESPERADO; A Serial Novel By Patrick McCabe; HarperCollins: 242 pp., $24

March 19, 2000|JONATHAN LEVI

"More than the greatest love the world has known / This is the love I give to you alone." How many of the aging boomers who remember those cloying lyrics know they graced the theme song of one of the most bizarre films of the early 1960s? "Mondo Cane" was a documentary with a world-beating motive. Shot on location around the world in those innocent Disney days when Annette Funicello and the rest of the Mouseketeers were singing "It's a Small World After All," the message of "Mondo Cane" was less a political call to universal brotherhood than a voyeuristic look at universal grossness. The movie showed us that the rich in Manhattan dine on sauteed insects. In Taipei, dog is on the menu. Meanwhile, somewhere in the world, a woman is breast-feeding her little piglet.

Grossness of a peculiarly Irish variety (dead bodies, maggots and stout) has always been a feature of the writing of Patrick McCabe. In the past, Madness and its best mate Degradation joined forces with McCabe's mighty ear and produced two great literary novels: "The Butcher Boy" and "The Dead School." His latest novel, "Mondo Desperado," is a good bit more light-hearted than its predecessors (fewer maggots, more idiots) and often smells less of the abattoir and more of the surrealistic comedies of the master Flann O'Brien.

Purportedly written by one Phildy Hackball and discovered (much as "Lolita" was discovered) by a spurious editor, "Mondo Desperado" is billed as a "serial novel." In reality, the book is a collection of drive-by stories set in the inconsequential Irish town of Barntrosna.

"Perhaps one of the most curious and fascinating aspects of village life as it is lived in Ireland," writes the narrator of one of the stories, "is its seemingly uncomplicated 'code of behavior'; the inhabitants of any village are, at any time, assumed to live simple, dutiful, perhaps even predictable lives, with clearly defined social and moral parameters. . . . But how close is this to the truth, or is it but a chimera behind the innocent facade lurking a reality as shocking as any seething mass of serpents uncovered by two arms sunk deep in a barrel of seemingly fragrant, beguiling potpourri?"

This is McCabe's thesis, an antidote, it seems, to the old-fashioned misty Irish stories that Conor McPherson and Martin McDonough have recently tarted up for the stage in plays like "The Weir" and "The Beauty Queen of Lenane." McCabe digs beneath the potpourri of the church in stories like "I Ordained the Devil" and "The Bursted Priest," which recounts the Ionesco-like explosion of Declan Conyngham, a boy destined for the priesthood, from whose soul shone, "as if in some other-worldly Weetabix advertisement, a light of breathtaking clarity." Hibernian literary arrogance is the butt of "The Big Prize" in which Pats Donaghy wins (or at least thinks he wins) the Buglass-McKenzie Literary Prize for his first novel, "A Kalashnikov for Shamus Doyle."

In the final and longest story of the book, fresh, innocent Irish beauty gets its comeuppance. "The Forbidden Love of Noreen Tiernan" tells of the prettiest colleen of Barntrosna, a girl so beautiful that one local remarked "on one occasion shaking his head: 'If young Tiernan doesn't turn out to be an international model, I'll eat all my winter silage.' " Given that set-up, it's no wonder that Noreen follows a passion for Florence Nightingale to a nursing career in London and from there to a life of lesbian crime on the streets of Soho--a real "Rocky Horror Picture Show" of cross-dressing and flagellation.

Yet McCabe's real goal isn't to expose the rotten underbelly of rural Ireland. Writers throughout the last century, from James Joyce onward, gleefully tackled and kicked and kicked again for good measure the myth of the "simple, dutiful" Irish village. McCabe is after taking the piss out of the simple, dutiful Irish story, rotten underbelly or no. Although he styles his book as a piece of pulp fiction, McCabe's satire is more in the spirit of Jonathan than Tom Swift. The problem is that the satire wears thin. By the fifth or sixth story, the piss has been so thoroughly taken out of the Irish town and the American genre that the book goes into renal shock. Stories like "The Valley of the Flying Jennets" resemble creaky Vincent Price movies and contain lazy spitballs of pulp dialogue like "Don't think I don't know what you are, Mr JJ Parkes, so-called practitioner in the field of medicinal arts! And don't think I don't know you are a direct descendant of Fortescue Hastings-Parkes, would-be veterinary surgeon and part-time scientist, who has visited a scourge on the town of Labashaca that no amount of forgiveness can ever wash away!" This is not vintage McCabe but watered-down Michael Palin, a reminder why the Monty Python scripts taste better to the ear than to the eye.

"Mondo Desperado" is not writing at the same level as "The Butcher Boy" and "The Dead School." But then neither, one might argue, is the movie "Pulp Fiction" the caliber of "Taxi Driver" or "Blue Velvet," although it is entertainment nonetheless. Pulp is the fodder of grocery stores, after all, the stuff of Stars and Enquirers. But at the end, one puts down "Mondo Desperado" with the feeling that it was the author who wrote, and not the reader who read, the novel on the checkout line, while waiting for his talent and imagination to ring up some greater purchase. We leave Barntrosna and its confused inhabitants, fly away from "Mondo Desperado" and wait for "More."

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