The Booker Prize has eluded Irish author Patrick McCabe thus far, although he was nominated twice for Breakfast on Pluto and The Butcher Boy. Call Me The Breeze, a complex, searing tale set in the Ireland of the '70s and '80s, might win him the award yet. Told mostly as a first-person account by the often-delusional Joseph (Joey) Mary Tallon, Call Me The Breeze is McCabe at his creative storytelling best.
The novel does not follow a conventional linear storyline. Instead, large pieces of it are told through random pages torn from Joey’s diary. Even at his best, when he is not on an acid high or on booze, his writing is unreliable. In the beginning, the reader often hesitantly puts pieces together. As the pace moves along, the tug feels greater until the genuineness of Joey’s voice sweeps you along. Joey is the underdog, a young man who tries to survive in a harsh Irish border town ridden by violence and corruption, and it is hard not to root for him.
Gradually one learns that he is in love with Jacy, a blond newcomer to town. He is convinced that she is from California, and Joey often daydreams of being at Big Sur with her. He watches helplessly from a distance as the woman of his dreams hooks up with a corrupt local married senator and suffers endless abuse at his hands. Call Me The Breeze is also rich with metaphor: Joey, who is on a voyage of self-discovery, seems to often try seeking nirvana by emotionally sealing himself in a “karma cave” with the object of his attentions. Violence as well seems to be a part of the moral fabric of the townspeople. Its attendant results -- children such as Joey brought up without knowing any meaningful relationships -- are painful to watch. In the novel, we learn that Joey’s father abandoned his family when young, and Joey himself seems to harbor an obsessive fondness for his father’s girlfriend, Mona. Desperate for guidance, Joey latches on to the closest things to father figures he can find at various stages of his life — the local priest, Father Connolly, the writing coach and even a prison warden, Mervin.
About the only refuge that Joey can reliably find is in books. He devours many, Hermann Hesse, Allan Ginsberg and T.S. Eliot. On a path to self-reform, he commits to writing classes and manages to produce marvelously prolific writing of his own.
After a brief stint in jail, Joey, now a reformed man, sets about making the town a better place, eventually even running for political office. His wide-eyed wonder is misplaced. From the very beginning of his efforts, you know he is doomed. In fact, very often during the novel, Joey looks behind his shoulder anticipating a threatening knock on his “caravan” (trailer), expecting a local (there are many thugs in the novel) to do him in. These ghostly scenes where the reader waits with bated breath every time the wind murmurs outside the caravan are brilliantly executed by McCabe.
In the end, McCabe has us question the meaning of success. Joey achieves some degree of success with his autobiographical novel The Life and Times of Doughboy McBlob. Written as a serious discourse on his life, the novel is interpreted as funny and whimsical by the review presses. Young Joey is hurt, but the ultimate irony -- that a life of witness to extreme violence, driven to the extremes, can be churned into a funny novel -- is not lost on him. He, too, knows that society has changed. After all, globalized homogeneity visits even his small town, which now has a McDonald's and a gaudy hotel.
“The real truth about 1976 in an ordinary old backwoods country ‘n Irish town. A hillbilly, rockabilly backwater full of shady politicos, sex movies, female wrestlers and dead detectives,” he recounts. Under such colorful circumstances, it is a wonder the sensitive Joey Tallon survived and stood his own, even if for only a few.