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"Discursive Nonsense": Narrative Structure, Trauma, and History in Call Me the Breeze

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 16, Number 4, Geimhreadh/Winter 2012
pp. 64-79 | 10.1353/nhr.2012.0049

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The critical reception of Patrick McCabe's 2003 novel Call Me the Breeze has been mixed at best. Kirkus Reviews notes that the "impossibly tangled narration and the overall tone of moral squalor overwhelm everything with an impenetrable gloom," calling the book "the greatest mess McCabe has published to date." Trevor Butterworth complains in his Washington Post Book World review that the "reminiscence, diary entries, [and] film scripts" that make up the narrative "undermine" the novel's potential drama and burden the reader, ultimately leaving "us gazing only in despair at a Portrait of the Artist as an Eejit." Lizzie Skurnick of the New York Times also laments the novel's form, calling its "variegated text" "dismal" and an "undifferentiated mash." At the same time, Andrew O'Hehir of Salon called it "very close" to a masterpiece. Still, the prevalent critical view is that McCabe's penchant for schizoid narratives that combine genres and media gallops overboard in Call Me the Breeze—and in doing so, undermines the reader's ability to make sense of the story.

Missing, in the dismissive remarks of these reviewers, is an understanding of McCabe's conscious use of pop culture as an organizing principle. The novel draws on Martin Scorsese's 1976 film Taxi Driver, and the pop song "Call Me the Breeze" by Lynyrd Skynyrd that was popular in the same year, to provide characters, plot elements, and motifs. Such a use of pop culture is common in McCabe's works, but Call Me the Breeze is the first novel in McCabe's oeuvre to engage significantly with trauma and the construction of historical and personal stories. It is troubling that these reviewers fail to contemplate the possibility that McCabe purposefully undermines the reader's easy access to the story, and instead privileges incomplete and even frustrating narrative structures. The novel questions narratives of all kinds, especially personal and national histories, suggesting that trauma—on either level—necessitates coping mechanisms that must dispense with the dubious pleasures of coherent, logical storytelling. Indeed, the narrative's incoherence frustrates narrator Joey Tallon himself, who observes, "if I was any kind of writer at all, I'd have made something worthwhile out of it, instead of sitting here rambling half the night, filling up pages with discursive nonsense."

That both Joey—and, implicitly, McCabe—recognize the novel as "discursive nonsense" suggests that this nonsense may be integral to McCabe's mission in the book because it provides a way to narrate trauma. As Joey struggles to cope with a personal and national history of violence, McCabe encourages readers to consider the proper relationship between a horrible past and the promise of a better future. Though this relationship is fraught with dangers—notably with the equally hazardous options of commemorating or denying history—Joey comes to recognize that adopting a narrative that accepts incoherence is the only way to achieve forgiveness and recover. McCabe thus refracts the general postmodern and poststructuralist distrust of metanarratives, especially historical ones, through the theoretical lens of trauma, which interrogates the reasons certain kinds of history are dangerous. In Call Me the Breeze, he attempts to provide paths forward into more humane and therapeutic historical narratives.

McCabe situates the novel in Scotsfield, a fictional community probably based on his hometown of Clones, County Monaghan. It is a small border community with a significant Provisional IRA presence. Joey, as he works at the local bar in 1976, finds himself privy to discussions of various violent acts perpetrated by the PIRA and British intelligence: the murder of the British salesman Campbell Morris, the assassination of the British ambassador and his secretary, the Kingsmill massacre (in which ten Protestant workers were murdered), the murder of Detective Tuite, and the bombing of Scotsfield during the Peace and Reconciliation Rally. Acts of extreme violence no longer seem exceptional; in 1976, assassinations and massacres happened one after the other.

Thus, while Joey himself is guilty of kidnapping, his community is guilty of much worse crimes; the setting of Scotsfield ties the personal and national together as dual sources of a traumatized history. When Scotsfield's priest, Father Connolly, conflates the personal, local, and national, claiming that the Tops...

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