Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Ken Bruen/Cross/Jack Taylor

As has been noted by a number of reviewers, Cross (like the five earlier novels in the Jack Taylor series) is not a traditional mystery or detective novel. The plots in this series seem to be an accumulation of misfortunes: if you think that what's happening now is the worst that can happen to Jack and his friends, you can depend on what's coming to be worse. The novels are short and told in short chapters (probably a mercy for the readers immersed in them, as much misery as they contain)--really more prose poetry than narrative. Bruen evokes an Ireland changing fast (and not for the better) and characters that are bypassed by the formerly (and now not so much) boom of the Celtic tiger. Bruen frequently mentions Charles Bukowski, who is really the guiding spirit of the series more than any of the crime writers that Bruen also often evokes--but since Taylor is now off the bottle, there's an inherent contradiction between the alcohol-soaked spirit of Bukowski and the sober but still down and out Taylor, a contradiction that Bruen exploits for the forward motion of his narrative (Taylor no longer lurching from one drunken encounter to another, but rather lurching from causing someone's death or misery to causing someone else's). And Taylor is truly a curse to himself and everyone around him. Most of the novel is in Taylor's voice, with a few chapters told from the point of view of a revenge-bound family on a collision course with Taylor. That revenge plot is only one of many threads (including stolen dogs, random strangers approaching Jack and then never seen again, the continuation of Jack's guilt over the death of his friends' child and his own protege, and so on). As with melancholy poetry, we don't look to a new Bruen novel for enjoyment but for a kind of catharsis or perhaps simply relief that we're not living his characters' lives, difficult as our own may be. Whether a particular reader appreciates what Bruen offers or not, we have to acknowledge that he's the reigning poet of noir.

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