Book Review: The Butcher Boy

This is a review written for my 4th semester of grad school, in which I was asked specifically to focus not only on the book itself, but how you approach the book as a writer. 

It was a pleasant surprise to open The Butcher Boy and see that I was at least in passing familiar with the author, Patrick McCabe. While I haven’t read the book it’s based on, I am well familiar with the movie adaptation that was made of his book Breakfast on Pluto. It’s a personal favorite of mine, so with that story in my mind, I was looking forward to seeing McCabe’s writing style and what a book of his might look like.

Whatever I had expected, I didn’t get it.

The plot of the story, as far as I can tell, is following the life of a young man named Francis Brady, usually referred to as Francie. (Which led to a moment where I wasn’t certain what gender the character was at the beginning, but it cleared up enough as it went on.) Francis is an interesting narrator, especially since McCabe chooses to tell the story strictly as if Francie was writing it down as he thought it. He has one close friend, a boy named Joe Purcell, and then what I could affectionately call an “arch-enemy” in newcomer Philip Nugent. According to Francie, Philip and the other Nugents are to blame for everything that has happened to him. Given that the book opens with him hiding from several angry people out for blood because of “what I done on Mrs Nugent.”

Francie’s family is dysfunctional to say the least, and entirely broken being more accurate. His mother leaves the scene about halfway through, and his father sooner after than I thought, given that I’m fairly certain portions of the book are in fact massive delusions of Francie’s. He evolves from a troubled and impulsive boy to a fully fledged nightmare by the end of the book, having at least two attempts at behavioral correction in between. And when finally you know what exactly he’s done to Mrs. Nugent and why the town is after him…well, I can’t exactly blame them.

From a storyteller’s point of view, it’s a fascinating construct. It’s A Clockwork Orange meets Catcher in the Rye in many ways, with all of the “fed up with the world” of Holden Caulfield and with all the strange dystopia and language of Alex DeLarge. (It’s possible that the language of the book merely reads difficultly to me because it’s a very strong Irish dialect, but from an American point of view, it’s hard to tell.) It’s jumpy and goes off on tangents and doesn’t stay focused for long—much like the character himself. It’s an extremely effective way to put your reader in the mindset of your character, especially someone like Francie Brady. The delusions and slow descent from common sanity would not be as effective told any other way—because we see this from Francie’s eyes. We see exactly what his logic is, and why he doesn’t think anything he’s done is wrong. A review on the back of the book mentions Hannibal Lecter, and I can see why. I haven’t read a more accurate portrayal of a sociopath (or if not that, then seriously unhinged person) before in my life.

The one piece that I wish the book could have was more of a look at what is going on behind the eyes of the other characters. Most of the townspeople seem to know something is off, but no one does anything. Joe attempts to get Francie to behave, but then even the stalwart friend begins turning away—to the point of denying he knows Francie at all, later. Philip Nugent is an odd one as well, bordering the line between confused and trying, and outright terror. I’d love to know what in their heads causes the change, rather than Francie’s opinion that everyone is simply leaving him, and they’ll come around eventually. (Or, more commonly, that everything is Mrs. Nugent’s fault.) As an unreliable narrator, I begin to wonder how much of what happens is true…and how much is simply something that Francie’s brain invented because he had decided he didn’t like the Nugents.

In that, it’s a very powerful book, leaving the reader at the end a bit shell-shocked from everything that’s happened. I could see the ending coming from a few pages away and all I could think was “oh God, Francie, no.” Not, perhaps, a book to read for light enjoyment on vacation, but a good book to have and read…and then think about, and put away somewhere in favor of something a bit more uplifting. Certainly not a book for the faint of heart.


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