Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone. So too, it seems, is love. Patrick McCabe’s new novel provides horrible and humorous confirmation of both. “The Dead School” is a tale of the calamitous clash between old Ireland and new, a spellbinding story of betrayal and broken dreams narrated to wonderfully menacing effect by a professional storyteller who speaks in cozy, conversational style, smiling sweetly as he prepares to deliver what amounts to a stinging slap across his listeners’ face: “Hello there boys and girls and I hope you are all well. The story I have for you this morning is all about two teachers and the things they got up to in the days gone by.” The teachers in question are Raphael Bell, born in 1913, and Malachy Dudgeon, born in 1956, and the “things they got up to” upon their fateful meeting in 1975 at St. Anthony’s School in Dublin are bleak indeed.
Bleakness is the trademark of McCabe, author of “The Butcher Boy.” Suicide, adultery, cruelty, insanity, murder, inveterate drunkenness, these are his wares and, true to form, there isn’t a character in this novel who hasn’t been radically and irreparably damaged by some terrible misfortune or psychological weakness. Early in the novel McCabe establishes his sad, broken characters in comic book colors and strokes so deftly that one is both endeared and repelled, drawn in and slightly sickened by people who seem both real and oddly unreal, luridly fabulistic in their symbolism.
As a young boy Raphael Bell watched British black-and-tan soldiers brutally murder his father. This is a noble death, as Raphael’s Uncle Joe points out, “Your father was a hero. . . . He died for Ireland. He’s at one now with all the loyal patriots asleep in the ground.” Thus imbued with the fire of patriotism, Raphael Bell grows into the model Irish boy: head prefect at school, star athlete, devout Catholic, ardent nationalist--the living embodiment of Romantic Ireland. Fiercely committed to guiding the nation’s youth, he becomes a schoolteacher, a fine one, and eventually is appointed headmaster of St. Anthony’s, which he single-handedly makes over into the most successful school in all of Dublin. Bell’s boys wear neckties, carry rosary beads and sing for Jesus.
Meanwhile, in another part of the country and a long time later, Malachy Dudgeon falls into the world and collides head on with a heap of modern difficulties. His mother commits ongoing and overt Sunday morning adultery in a boat shed, and his passive, heartbroken and much ridiculed father eventually drowns himself in a lake, all of which comes as a terrible blow to the innocent Malachy. Filled with resentment, Malachy shuts his mother out of his heart and vows never to love again. “Love was in the grave and that was that, like it or lump it.”
A poor and unassertive student, Malachy turns to American films, pop music and Jack Nicholson as his guide. For lack of anything better to do he, too, decides to become a schoolteacher and by coincidence attends the same teachers’ training college that Raphael Bell so earnestly attended many years before. But it’s a changed school indeed, with students spending more time on drugs and drink than on studies and prayer.
Eventually--and thanks to Malachy’s ability to falsify his record and his intentions--Raphael Bell hires Malachy Dudgeon as a teacher at St. Anthony’s. The two men could not be less alike, and therein lies the difficulty. When traditional holy Ireland meets hip modern Ireland, the result is a colossal psychological short-circuit that leads to the precipitous demise of both men. Malachy is a hapless, ineffectual teacher who has no feeling for his nation or its history, and because of him a terrible tragedy occurs at St. Anthony’s, ruining Raphael Bell’s sterling reputation as well as his school.
But, as the cloyingly cheerful narrator is careful to point out, Bell’s ruination isn’t entirely Malachy’s fault. There are other forces at work; the alarming outbreak of immorality in the Irish media, for example, typified by “The Terry Krash Show,” a call-in radio show that litters the Irish airwaves with vulgar chatter about bras and sex. And there’s the appearance of one Marie Evans, head of the parents’ committee, a pro-choice, pro-contraception, anti-parochial kind of gal, hell-bent on sneaking illegal condoms into the Irish Republic and thoroughly modernizing Raphael’s school. These radical forces and the general decline of Irish society are more than poor patriotic Raphael can take, and madness quickly sets in--so quickly, in fact, and with such dire severity that the reader finds herself blinking with surprise and not a small degree of disbelief, the more so because Malachy, too, has gone off on his own simultaneous tangent of insanity.
Which leads to the greatest flaw of this novel: Its brutal twists and turns of fate too often stretch the reader’s imagination further than it can reasonably be expected to stretch. There are moments in the last third of the book when the author’s macabre sensibility runs clunkily away with him, leaving the reader skeptical and perplexed as to the point of all this universal devastation and despair. Ultimately, though, (and mercifully) it is not the events affecting these characters that keep one turning pages late into the night, but the richness of McCabe’s voice, his driving, highly tuned duplication of Irish speech, his quirky humor, the denseness of atmosphere and hypnotizing lack of space that permeates the novel and so skillfully parallels the mood of its principals, compressed as they are within the closet-like closeness of Irish society.
McCabe can be forgiven, I think, for his occasional ham-handedness and unlikeliness of plot purely based on the agility of his prose, the sheer force of his language, which while it cannot easily be called beautiful, positively thrums with life. And despite the long riffs of unrelenting suffering in “The Dead School,” there are also surprising moments of sweetness. The love portrayed between Malachy and his girlfriend is real and uplifting; so is the courtship of Raphael and his wife, Nessa. In fact, ever perceptible beneath the terrible surface of this story lies the subtle layer of gentle compassion that Patrick McCabe clearly holds for his beleaguered characters, and it is that, in the end, which redeems the book.