Hello Mr. Bones & Goodbye Mr. Rat

By Patrick McCabe

(Quercus, $24.99, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

Patrick McCabe, a writer of contemporary horror novels and other books that have won a slew of awards in his native Ireland, has a knack for the macabre – and that is not a pun on McCabe, though it could be. His novels The Butcher Boy (which won the Irish Times/Aer lingus Literature Prize and was shortlisted for the 1992 Booker Prize) and Breakfast on Pluto (which made the 1998 Booker Prize short list), became films directed by Neil Jordan. Another McCabe book, Winterwood, was named the 2006 Hughes & Hughes/Irish Independent Novel of the Year.

What is this book about?

You get two eerie novellas for the price of one with Hello/Goodbye. Just flip it over when you have finished the first one, and there’s the second. Both are narrated by unreliable voices, because after all, they are dead. In Hello, Balthazar Bowen, a long-gone “eccentric pervert” who had nearly ruined the life of Valentine, an aspiring Christian Brother, comes back from the grave – or at least makes a phone call (imagine the roaming charges!) – to upset the young man’s life anew, during an unusual and unexpected hurricane in England. In Goodbye, Gabriel, a deceased Irish Republican Army bomber observes from on high – or would that be from deep below – as his former girlfriend, a lass from Indiana, travels to the bomber’s rural Irish village with his ashes. All does not go as planned, you surely will not be surprised to hear.

Why you’ll like it:

The New York Times’ review says McCabe “writes like an Irish Lenny Bruce, riffing at warp speed, swerving from one time to another and one place to another and strewing the landscape with allusions — to Coleridge, Milton, Yeats, Marc Bolan, “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” “Oliver!,” Betty Boop and an annoyingly memorable toothpaste jingle, among others. . .” Being favorably compared to the bitter brilliance of Mr. Bruce is high praise indeed, in my opinion. McCabe mixes comedy with creepiness to create an unusually dark and delicious brew. Sip it with caution; it’s powerful.

What others are saying:

“. . . McCabe, as readers of his 1992 novel “The Butcher Boy” might remember, is expert at making the darkest deeds funny, forcing us to laugh at the worst things in the world. . .  and somehow it all makes sense. . . .By the end, you might feel, as Valentine does, “captive in the dread country of delusion and irrationality,” but if you’re not blinded by McCabe’s verbal pyrotechnics you can make out where he’s been going. This story is about the struggle to break free of a dire past; about the powerful forces arrayed against reason, sanity, happiness itself; about the demons that keep us locked up in old obsessions. . . .  The tone of “Goodbye Mr. Rat” is more muted and mournful than that of “Hello Mr. Bones,” but McCabe’s writing is no less brazenly allusive . . .  and Gabriel is no more to be trusted than Balthazar Bowen was. Different though they are, the novels come together when you’re finished reading, creating a single vision of the horrors that crush people’s souls. The stories McCabe tells have a terrible beauty. Next to them, the problems of a bunch of vampires don’t amount to a hill of beans,” says The New York Times Book Review by Terrence Rafferty .

“McCabe is especially good at conjuring up the menace of psychopaths who perpetrate acts of barbarism under the spurious guise of ideologies,” says The Independent (Dublin).

The Guardian says: “. . . McCabe is a master of both the demented narrative and demented narrator. Beneath the ghosts and ghoulies, however, lies a compassionate exploration of the aftermath of psychological damage.

“The first novella, Hello Mr Bones, concerns a disgraced Christian Brother and an abused child. However – in a radical departure for Irish fiction – the abused child is the Christian Brother. As a boy, Valentine Shannon had been “interfered with” by the local psychopathic Anglo-Irish toff from the manor, “eccentric pervert” Balthazar Bowen, who styles himself as Mr Bones. Valentine goes on to join the Christian Brothers, only to be ejected after striking a student, one Martin Boan. In an effort to escape his past, he relocates to London and works as a lay teacher. His past, however, catches up with him when Valentine receives a phone call from Mr Bones. This call is even more disturbing than a call from one’s abuser might usually be, given that Bowen, or Bohen, or Boan, or Mr Bones, is now dead.

“These days, Valentine is sustained by love. In his partner, Chris Taylor, a 70s feminist and lone parent, McCabe introduces another character who is something of a rare bird in Irish fiction: a good mother. Mr Bones, however, has designs on Chris’s disabled son, Faisal, and repeated references are made to a horrific crime carried out on a boy with Down’s Syndrome in Florida by a certain clown called Bonio who, by all accounts, is limbering up to strike again.

The novella is set in 1987 on the day of the hurricane that assailed Britain. Michael Fish has reassured the populace that there is no need to worry, but in McCabeland, there is every need to worry. As the storm brews, Mr Bones’s demonic plans reach fruition, leading to a chilling denouement.

“. . . the spirit of McCabe’s second novella, Goodbye Mr Rat, is Samuel Beckett all the way: the main character is interred in an urn. Gabriel King has been cremated, though he hasn’t let it stop him. His friend, Beni Banikin, from Indiana, is returning his ashes to his hometown, Iron Valley, in the border counties of Ireland . . . and yet again, McCabe tackles a topic that is rare in Irish fiction – repeated references are made to a sectarian attack carried out by Catholics on Protestants . .  Gabriel expresses disgust and remorse from his urn, but his story changes as his narrative progresses. Can he be trusted? Similarly, his fellow IRA operatives are now respected elected public representatives, poachers-turned-gamekeepers. Their ringleader is mayor. Can they be trusted? Can anyone be trusted? Will the truth about the horrors of the dark decades of the Troubles ever come to light? . . . .These are without doubt strange pieces, and they are strangely effective. How better to articulate the atrocities of the Troubles and the devastation of child abuse than through the horror genre?

“. . . this isn’t Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones, narrated from heaven and suffused with redemption. These are the Bones of Patrick McCabe: stark, fierce, and wonderful.”

When is it available?

This twin terror is now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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