It’s not very well known, but back in the 20s and 30s, L. Frank Baum’s Oz books were routinely banned throughout the Bible Belt. The reason was not “witchcraft and the occult,” as you might guess, but something even more unnerving to good, solid, white, Christian middle Americans: a matter of gender identity.
Oz, you see, was ruled by a beautiful princess named Ozma (she’s not in the first book or the MGM movie based on it). But Ozma wasn’t always a little girl. She had been born a boy, didn’t like it, and so simply…became a girl. Good heavens! We can’t let our sons think that there’s any chance they might be happier as girls, much less that they might actually do anything about it! And so off the shelves the Oz books came.
There was no such fuss about Patrick McCabe’s Breakfast on Pluto when it was published in the late 90s. Reviewers fell over themselves lavishing praise on this story of a gay, possibly trans kid, in fact, which shows…well, it must show something, though it’s hard to be certain what. There’s a temptation to use the word progress, but somehow that doesn’t seem exactly right. Maybe it’s just that they find McCabe’s book more reassuring.I found a copy of the book in my local used book store and dipped into with high hopes.
Pluto is the story of Patrick Braden, an Irish gay teenager coming of age during the worst of Ireland’s “troubles,” in the 60s and early 70s, when murder, bombing and wholesale terrorism were part of the landscape. This story veers sharply from farce to soapsuds to grotesque, brutal violence and back again. Innocent bystanders are blasted to shreds, women’s hair is set on fire, priests get burned alive in their churches, dogs are strangled with barbed wire…
Patrick is the bastard son of the village priest and a mother who abandons him at birth. He cross-dresses from an early age (there’s a very funny episode where he steals a neighbor lady’s underclothes off the wash line); leaves home as soon as he can; changes his name to “Pussy” and earns a living as a London rentboy. There follows a series of picaresque adventures, many of them shared with his only real friend, a straight girl (annoyingly named Charlie Kane). Patrick is kept by a closeted politician, who is killed by the IRA. A trick tries to strangle him with a silk cord. He falls in love with a straight guy and attacks his girlfriend. Etc., etc.
In purely literary terms, Breakfast on Pluto is a perfectly fine novel. McCabe’s an engaging writer, large stretches of the narrative are terribly funny, and the book’s numerous twists from comedy to horrific violence to pathos are handled skillfully. And yet…
And yet the problem, of course, is that it’s impossible to take the book strictly on its own terms. I don’t know if McCabe is gay, but his concept of a queer life is unconvincing and, ultimately, false in the way that straight depictions of gay people nearly always are.
By now the litany of lies and misrepresentations is familiar enough, and every last one of them appears in this novel and its presentation of Patrick/Pussy:
1. Gay men are obsessed with their mothers. (At one point, Patrick even compares himself to Norman Bates.)
2. Gay people exist alone, with no community, without even other gay friends. (Patrick doesn’t even socialize with the other hustlers.) Gay people rely on straight people for support and emotional satisfaction or get none. Lesbians and queer people of color are, needless to say, invisible.
3. Gay relationships are based solely on sex. They are shallow, emotionally empty and do not last.
4. Gay people die lonely. This book is narrated by an aged Pussy/Patrick as a flashback, presumably from the present, and he still has not made a meaningful connection to even one other queer which, since he’s not exactly shy about who and what he is and since he lives in contemporary London, is flat-out incredible.
5. Gay men are prone to fall in love with straight men and make horrible pests of themselves. This is one of the most persistent themes we’re confronted with in popular entertainment. If you didn’t know better you’d think straight men spend their entire waking lives fending off the advances of lovelorn homos. (I take this ongoing motif to be a function of the straight male ego. But why, I ask you, why in the name of bloody Christ would anybody want a straight man?)
6. Gay men are emotionally unstable and are likely to commit irrational violence on the flimsiest impulse.
7. There’s no essential difference between gay men, cross-dressers and trans women. McCabe seems especially vague on the distinction between the last two of those. Even though Patrick refers to himself most of the time as “he,” he also tells us at one point that he wants to have a vagina and bear children. Other times he’s simply content to be a “he” with a fabulous wardrobe. But then, to straight people, all the various species of queer are more or less the same, or at least interchangeable, aren’t we?
8. And finally: Homophobia does not exist, except in an incidental, background kind of way. Patrick/Pussy is called unpleasant names a few times but–in an atmosphere where “suspect” people are routinely disposed of–he’s never actually threatened. Even though he cross-dresses most of the time, no one seems to notice or care, and the straight people who dislike him dislike him for reasons unconnected to his sexuality. On that subject they are all completely neutral. And so of course there is never any suggestion that straight people might have anything to be ashamed of or to apologize for in the way they routinely treat gay/trans kids (or adults, for that matter).
Ten years after it was published, and in the wake of entertainments like Milk, this novel has a weird, retro feel. I do have to admit, grudgingly, that I admire the way McCabe managed to shoehorn all of these cliches into one story. But the fact that so many mainstream critics rushed to heap praise on the book is a good indicator of just how firmly entrenched this rubbish is in the minds of a lot of straight people.
On the whole though, even though it has its rewards on a purely literary level, Breakfast on Pluto left me longing for those fine old fantasy novels of L. Frank Baum. They were, after all, much more honest: Baum knew he was writing fantasy.