The Stray Sod Country

Patrick McCabe returns to 'a macabre world and a lost way of life'

The Stray Sod Country is the latest novel from twice Booker shortlisted Irish author Patrick McCabe, whose writing is clever, witty and anything but predictable.

In The Stray Sod Country McCabe introduces the fictional border town of Cullymore. The novel is set initially in 1959, but the narrative includes glimpses of other time periods.

From the outset it's clear that this is going to be an eerie and unsettling read: ‘the devil had somehow been involved in… an ear-splitting scream… from the café across the street’. However, master of suspense McCabe leaves this event unexplained for many chapters, heightening the tension, while he introduces us to the rest of Cullymore’s inhabitants.

There’s barber’s wife Golly Murray, a Protestant married to a Catholic, who dreams of the first dog sent into space and of killing her rich friend Blossom. Recently returned emigrant, Teddy O’Neill can’t stop boasting of the occasion he met Billy Fury and hopes that his time working in Butlin’s Skegness will impress his childhood sweetheart.

The parish priest, Father Hand has his energy taken up with two deep hatreds: his obsessed with his rival, Father Peyton - priest and ‘friend to the stars’ - and also with James Reilly, ex-school teacher, local vagrant and outcast. James Reilly returns Father Hand’s loathing, taking every opportunity to humiliate the priest, whether it’s by urinating in the holy-water font or merely shouting obscenities in the street.

The novel is narrated by a shadowy and threatening figure who directs the story and actively manipulates the characters like a master puppeteer. This ‘inscrutable chronicler’, who may or may not be the devil, makes his presence felt with comments such as: ‘I would like to emphasise, however, that whether Serbia or Cullymore, my position remains essentially one of restraint and indifference.’

McCabe, mirroring his amoral narrator, introduces disturbingly violent events in such a banal, off-hand way that they become merely everyday occurrences, giving the novel a surreally comic tone.

Many of the town’s inhabitants start to see or hear strange things or have the feeling of a terrifying presence nearby, making them increasingly paranoid and delusional. Is the narrator toying with them or are they are sinking into madness and hallucination? Neither the reader nor the characters are sure and it becomes a running excuse in the narrative: ‘It isn’t me… someone else is making me do this.’

McCabe captures the despair and poignancy of depression and shame as many of the characters are increasingly unable to communicate, feeling stranded and alone within the busy village. Much of the book’s dark humour comes from tensions of class and religion and the spectre of the Troubles is ever-present. Though the town likes to think of itself as an inclusive community, there is a rigid class structure and a latent sectarianism.

Blossom and Bodley Foster, the Protestant bank manager and his wife, are the nearest Cullymore has to a ruling family. They are ostensibly friendly to their Catholic neighbours, but laugh at them and their superstitions in private. Manus Hoare, a young IRA recruit, tends to ‘the unimaginative and... grimly orthodox’ and is against all that’s modern, such as going to the cinema. He’s fighting to keep Ireland traditional and religious, as much as against the English. Yet we learn that 20 years later he has been mythologized as an Irish martyr and hero.

The Stray Sod Country is an enjoyable if not an especially easy book to read. The frequent changes of topic and time period, and McCabe’s idiosyncratic style, alongside the large cast of characters mean it demands a close reading. The bleak humour is offset by a sympathetic, almost caring treatment of the characters, whatever their faults. It is an ambitious and penetrating study of human nature and the life of small-town Ireland of generations ago.