by Patrick McCabe
256 pages, Bloomsbury USA (January 22, 2008)
Review by S. P. Miskowski
Novelist Patrick McCabe (The Butcher Boy; Breakfast on Pluto) examines the social and political arc of the past twenty-five years in Ireland as a parallel to the shifting fortunes and inexorable decline of his protagonist in Winterwood. The protagonist/narrator's attempts to leap into the competitive modern world exemplify the efforts of his country to do the same. At this and at a more personal level Winterwood is about the difficulty of extricating oneself from the ghosts of the past, and the pernicious nature of deeply imprinted, horrific childhood experiences.
When journalist Redmond Hatch returns to his former home in the rural town of Slievenageeha to write a colorful article about the folk traditions there, he meets a native named Ned Strange and immediately falls under his spell. Strange is a local favorite, with his country dialect, fanciful anecdotes and old Irish songs. His quaintness buys his way into the company of people who see him as a relic, a human time capsule conveniently preserving the history that they view as a novelty. But Redmond sees a different side of Ned when they are alone together, drinking. Ned reveals his belligerence, rage and cruelty--and a good deal of knowledge about Redmond's family life before he left Slievenageeha. Ned is one of several characters who impose themselves, physically and psychically, on children. Throughout the book Ned functions as a catalyst, a plausible character, a composite, a phantom, and a cipher. That McCabe is able to make all of this work indicates the virtuosity of his prose.
Redmond is a man who dearly wants to believe the things he tells us about himself. Like Ned, he has adopted a face that will allow him into polite company while keeping secret the nature he knows he cannot share. To speak the whole truth would tear him apart, and so he denies what he knows and keeps up the relentless patter of our age: the over-energized pep talk and TV-trained self-analysis that pass for conversation in the 21st century. He is a man who must pretend to be ever on the verge of turning over a new leaf. As he persists in his struggle to overcome what is insurmountable, he tries to convince us, and himself, that everything is fine, or nearly fine, or about to be fine.
This masterful study of a damaged mind fragmenting beyond repair comes from one of our most respected contemporary authors. Complex in tone and point of view, the book is both a social chronicle and a record of personal catastrophe.
McCabe takes the quaint veneer of a misrepresented and sentimentalized way of life and shows how nostalgia itself can mask and thereby allow a persistent evil. Redmond refuses to relinquish his gruesome optimism, and it gradually engulfs him. Mocked because of his background and family, he realizes that this is a repudiation of his deepest nature, but cannot offer an articulate, non-violent response. His wife calls his relatives hillbillies, and he laughs along with her, secretly mortified by the pathetic and brutal details of his impoverished youth. His tragedy, if we allow him so grand a conceit, is to be caught between what is expected of him in the world where he tries to live, and what has happened to him in the world he has tried to leave behind.