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Book Review: The Holy City

The Holy City
By Patrick McCabe
Bloomsbury USA, 2008

All kinds of bad writing are on display in Patrick McCabe’s dreadful new novel The Holy City. It’s a dully imagined psychodrama about Irishman Christopher J. McCool, a louche, self-regarding playboy who utters things like “Just call me Pops” and “Yeah, baby, it’s magic time.” McCool (whose very name stops the novel in its tracks every time it appears) is naturally our Unreliable Narrator, whose silky-smooth exterior masks a dark and rage-filled history—the details of which are gradually exposed, even though you can guess them by page six.

But the low-wattage premise of The Holy City is merely peripheral to the aforementioned showcase of bad writing; the book might be a useful tutorial on the varieties of awful prose if it weren’t as unreadable as a wet newspaper.

Take, for starters, the way that McCabe frames his main character’s narration. For a sizable part of the book, McCool relates the events of his life at third-hand: we learn what he did as a young man when he tells us about what he told his therapist. I suppose the added screens are supposed to complicate McCool’s unreliability, but they simply make the central drama shapeless and obscure.

Or take the voice our embarrassingly named protagonist is saddled with. McCool is a phony, so there’s supposed to be something smarmy and fraudulent about the way he talks, but McCabe doesn’t come close to giving verisimilitude to his charlatan, instead larding his speech with preposterous James Bond-villain pomposity:

Let me make it clear, however, that in no way do I perceive anything I might have apprised regarding the nefariousness of Mukti’s wiles and deceptions to excuse what I did to him later on.

Or:

I think if you were to ask me what the thing I most admire about modern life as it’s lived in this the early part of the twenty-first century is it is the single simple fact that no one now would dare impinge on another’s privacy.

All of this is suitably awful, but it’s just possible to see it as bad writing that resulted from mistaken artistic decisions. But not even such a feeble defense as that attaches to the next example on our instructive survey:

The red-haired baby-faced Scottish singer Lulu had been one of the brightest stars of that particular year. There would have been no one more popular in Cullymore at that time.

Or:

I thought about it nearly all the time—not just occasionally, or maybe now and then. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, to tell you the truth.

Readers of The Holy City will leave the book with a strong understanding of the word “tautology,” but that’s about all they’ll take away. Anyone who remembers liking McCabe’s Booker-shortlisted 1992 novel The Butcher Boy should nevertheless stay as far away from this book as possible.

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