Doors are closing against Irish schoolboy Francie Brady -- doors to social respectability, doors to self-respect. Irish writer Bruce McCabe uses the sound of doors being pushed shut gently, but irrevocably, as a poignant counterpoint to the noisy, perverse and often wickedly funny first-person account in his third novel, "The Butcher Boy."
Francie, the narrator, is a sarcastic young Dostoevskian "underground man": smart enough to understand what a mess his life is but too brutalized to find his way to something better.
On the first page, Francie has taken cover in a riverside burrow near his small rural town. The angry townspeople are after him "on account of what I done on Mrs. Nugent." She is a prim neighbor-lady who has the bad manners to call the shabby Brady family "pigs" and the bad luck to be the one who breaks the news to Francie when his emotionally disturbed mother kills herself.
Francie knows that Mrs. Nugent's son, Philip, has everything that Francie lacks: a kind and sober father, a sane mother, a clean, cozy home. Helpless envy is no fun, so Francie decides to break into the Nugents' house while they're out and show them what pigs can do.
"Welcome to the Nugents Mr. Francie Brady!" Francie chatters to himself in the nonstop TV patter that fills his head. "Thank you I said, thank you very much. It gives me great pleasure to be standing on these black and white tiles in the scullery."
Francie relieves himself on the Nugents' carpet and gets sent to a school for delinquent boys. There, he plans to win "the Francie Brady Not a Bad Bastard Any More Diploma." Instead, he's mauled by an elderly, pederastic priest.
Back home with his drunkard dad again, Francie tries to tell his best friend, Joe, about the priest. Joe gets disgusted and drops Francie for Philip Nugent. In Francie's disintegrating mind, Mrs. Nugent is to blame for the loss of his mother and his only friend.
Job-hunting at the local slaughterhouse, Francie impresses the boss with his cool facility for killing soft, helpless creatures.
Few things sustain Francie: the sight of some wildflowers that his mother had loved, the soothing babble of nesting hens. His main comfort, though, is a vision of his parents as happy newlyweds. In the book's most poignant episode, Francie tracks down their old honeymoon hotel, only to meet with yet another closing door.
"All the beautiful things of the world are lies," Francie decides, "They count for nothing in the end."
Francie is an accident waiting to happen; and the author's considerable magic lies in making us care so much about this ill-fated boy. Right up until the final pages -- which Mr. McCabe wittily sets amid the end-of-the-world hysteria that attended the 1962 Cuban missile crisis -- we're rooting for Francie to get
through that last door before it shuts him out forever.
Title: "The Butcher Boy"
Author: Bruce McCabe
Length, price: 215 pages, $19.95