Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Ken Bruen's "Cross": Book Review

The sixth installment in Bruen's "Galway noir" ex-Garda Jack Taylor's lonely, agitated, and despairing fight to, as he recalls, carry out justice in the alley rather than law in the courts, proves excoriating, harrowing, and satisfying. While I've liked-- if that's the word for such grim fiction-- all of the series, there was a bit of straining in recent episodes due to coincidences, unrelieved mayhem, and Jack's self-hatred. Not that these have diminished exactly in "Cross," but Bruen appears to have better insights into his protagonist's awareness of his conflicted nature.

"I admitted to me own self-- a thing I hated to do-- I was scared. I was alone. Your Irish bachelor in all his pitiful glory, shabby and bitter, ruined and crumbling.

With a plan." (95)

Fed up with a gentrified, commodified, faux-British, and cruel Galway remade by euros and Eurotrash, Jack resolves to sell his flat and move to Florida. There's only a curious case of dognapping and a few horrific murders to solve first. As usual, his scheme to investigate, report, and abscond goes predictably awry.

As always, Galway's a character along with the locals.

"Summer was definitely over. The peculiar light, unique to the West of Ireland, was flooding the street-- it's a blend of brightness but always with the threat of rain, and it glistens like wet crystal even as it soothes you. The edge of darkness in creeping along the horizon and you get the feeling you better grab it while it lasts." (40-41)
Such evocative prose comes rarely here, all the more to enjoy it.

Eyre Square crumbles, a gay ghetto thrives nearby, a Mexican restaurant seems "very authentic," and the housing prices skyrocket despite, circa 2004, the bubble bursting for the boomtown. Guns are sold out of a van by Salthill church; it's hard to find a St. Brigid's traditional cross for sale in the religious goods shop. The pubs are always there, tempting Jack back from sobriety. This element remains one of Bruen's motifs, and he limns well the agony of the recovering alcoholic.

There's fewer of his old friends that return. Often, the price of hanging out with Jack appears to be mortal. Stewart's a welcome presence; his return from his Zen retreat (in Limerick!) to encounter Jack in a rage I found the novel's best scene. It's back with combative Ridge and the irascible Father Malachy, joined by newcomer Gina, an Italian doctor, and such momentarily glimpsed but memorably drawn folks as the mother of another ex-Guard, Mrs. Heaton; King, the owner of a suspicious canned goods exporting firm; and a rather kindly-- for once-- priest, Jim.

The plot, as before, has its twists and turns. Less manic than some before, and there's a growing sense of maturity and its costs upon the hard-living, brittle, and cantankerous haunted figure who pursues evil into the streets and even into the sea. The novel does not make a false turn. You'd have trouble starting in with number six in the series, however, and the narrative plunges you in right away where the last one, "Priest," left off. If you've stuck with Jack in the past, on the other hand, this well-crafted story takes you to its last sentence with flair, poignancy, and weight.

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

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