Rating: B+/ Call me crazy, but I count Patrick McCabe’s 1992 novel The Butcher Boy among my favorite and most influential books of all time. Sure, it’s Bleak with a capital B, but it turned me on to my current fascination with books featuring unreliable narrators. It was made into a 1997 movie by Neil Jordan, and while it was surprisingly good with a convincing performance by Eamonn Owens as the book’s mentally disturbed narrator, Francie, some of the book’s brilliance was lost in translation.
I had already watched the movie for Breakfast on Pluto years before I read the book, and I would have gotten to reading the novel earlier if I hadn’t lost it in the shithole that is my room. My dad and my sister cleaned the room and Breakfast on Pluto turned up unexpectedly, as missing things often do. So I picked up my previously missing copy and read it over the course of two days, and I was pleased that it was so different from the film adaptation. I had mixed feelings about it because I liked the conclusion of the film so much, but I was also glad because the drastic changes made it feel like I was reading a whole different story.
Breakfast on Pluto is set alternately in a small town in Ireland and the gritty mean streets of London, and is narrated by Patrick Braden, a transgendered Irish call girl who goes by the moniker ‘Pussy.’ Pussy is a campy, sometimes silly and shallow self-made woman who is haunted by her mother’s abandonment when she was a small child. Raised by a foster mother who didn’t really care about her and alienated by her gender identity in a time when being trans was considered a illness that needed urgent treatment (the novel is set from about the 1960’s and 1970’s, not a great time for the LGBTQ community,) Pussy is lonely and desperate for love.
She finds temporary comfort (if not exactly fairy tale love) in the arms of various closeted, rich sugar daddies, and her therapist Terrance encourages her to write about her life. A bit of a gender rebel before that kind of thing became more common, Pussy has various affairs with both men and women, and goes searching for her birth mother, who was only a teenager when she had her. Pussy seems to live in a bit of a glass bubble when it comes to the political turmoil around her (the Irish troubles are at their Zenith, both homes and establishments on both sides are getting blown up indiscriminately,) and almost seems to float naively through the chaos, even when she is suspected of being a terrorist and interrogated and tortured by some British police.
She also sometimes writes about herself in the third person, which can be a little confusing but I think is supposed to portray the distance Pussy takes from her own life, observing the drama as if from someone outside herself. There are also a few chapters that are written in third person and don’t involve the main character at all, at least not directly. The most powerful and saddest of these involve a young man who is engaged to a Irish Catholic girl and tortured and murdered by some British militants for supposedly sleeping with the enemy. The man is rarely mentioned outside of this one vignette, and is supposed to be a neighbor of Pussy Braden.
I will say that the parts of this book that deal with the Irish troubles are frustratingly biased in the Irish Catholics’ favor, which is not surprising due to the author’s nationality. From what I understand there was a ton of atrocious violence on both sides, and the members of the IRA were certainly no saints; nor were the British authorities the only ones with blood on their hands. Overall, though, this book is less about that bloody time in history and more about the main character’s unique voice and journey toward self-actualization.
Unlike in the movie, Pussy Braden’s Catholic priest father does not come through for her in the end and prove himself to actually be a great guy. The ending of the book is much more low-key and sad, which nothing having clearly been gained by the heroine’s struggle. She ends up living in relative comfort, but being as lonely and perhaps even as empty as ever, which is drastically different from the conclusion of the movie, where Pussy, her friend Charlie, and Pussy’s biological father form an odd kind of family.
I like both endings in different ways, the ending of the movie is more satisfying, but the ending of the book is perhaps less Hollywood. Pussy’s voice can be frustrating at times to read and understand, and there’s definitely a similarity between Breakfast on Pluto‘s heroine’s distance from the tragedy of her own life and the flippant narration Francie Brady from The Butcher Boy provides for the readers. One is a Schizophrenic delinquent from an abusive home in the process of decompensating, and another is a transgendered prostitute obsessed with the frivolities of popular music and pretty things, but you can feel the similarities between the voices, both approaching their lives as if they were movies outside their experience and control.
If you liked the bleakness and psychological complexity of The Butcher Boy, you’ll probably like McCabe’s style of writing in this one too. The latter is perhaps less violent and hopelessly depressing than the former, not that that’s saying much. Patrick ‘Pussy’ Braden is both an exasperating and sympathetic character, and the author’s affinity for unreliable and psychologically troubled characters is evident here. There is definitely some historical material to glean from this book, but McCabe never allows the political aspect to bog down the story. I especially appreciate the way the author makes his narrators profoundly human, but doesn’t shy away from the uglier aspects of their personalities either.
Of course there is a big difference between Pussy Braden, who is often selfish, silly, and shallow but is mostly harmless, and Francie from The Butcher Boy, who is essentially a psychopath, or at least a deeply disturbed adolescent grappling with a psychotic illness and a conduct disorder, but the author’s approach to them is very similar. He doesn’t force their good qualities or try desperately to make you love them, choosing instead to let their unique voices and sometimes-disturbed actions speak for themselves.
I think I liked The Butcher Boy a little bit better than Breakfast on Pluto, maybe because it was the first one by McCabe I read, or maybe because I’m a sucker for books about serious mental illness. In my opinion Patrick McCabe’s writing style is brilliant, but it’s a brilliance that takes a little getting used to, especially if you’re used to reading very straightforward fiction and don’t have a lot of patience for books that are more stream of consciousness.
The upside of this, of course, is that you feel like you’re in the character’s head, more than you would if you were reading a book written in the standard fashion. After you read this book I would encourage you to watch the movie, the two are totally different in many ways, but they’re both completely worthwhile. While Pussy might initially seem to be complete camp stereotype, you find yourself discovering a surprising amount of depth lingering behind her surface of baubles and glamour.
By the end, she is a surprisingly sympathetic heroine and both a funny and tragic protagonist, kept sane through excruciating circumstances by her imagination and powers of denial. Breakfast on Pluto is rather dark and sad (which won’t be surprising to you if you have read anything by this author, who is not exactly rainbows and unicorns even on his best days) but it’s a beautifully written book that’s worth checking out all the same. As with the best tragicomic fiction, the sadness and the dark humor mix until they are barely distinguishable from each other. McCabe’s writing might not be for everyone, but his talent at building believable characters is inarguable.