Saturday, July 11, 2009

Ken Bruen's "Sanctuary": Book Review

The seventh in the series opens with Jack Taylor finding out that Ban Garda Ridge, "my partner in hostility and uneasy alliance for years," has breast cancer. Recovering at home, "if recuperating means sitting in an armchair, listening to the kind of whining music they give free razor blades with, and drinking." (12) If this acerbic tone strikes a chord, you'll welcome, if that's the word, another harsh tale.

Galway's no more welcoming, as the native Irish seemed to have disappeared, with nary a local accent to be heard amidst the drunks, non-nationals, "service industry," and newly rich that flood Jack's hometown. Lonely, in this novel he has nobody to turn to at all; nemesis Father Malachy pops up regularly to snarl at him, and the temptations of both drugs and drink loom larger than ever as he sets out in his haphazard manner to try to stop another serial killer.

This time, Stewart, an ex-drug dealer, helps him: "I trade information, nothing more valuable. It's not what you know but knowing what it is where the information lies." (95) Jack sneers, but he knows his own dangerous days are behind him after a dissolute life: "Do I look dangerous? Yeah, if an old guy with a hearing aid and a limp scares you." (94)

Every Jack Taylor story has him at the charity store tallying up his wardrobe, but "Sanctuary" (I wonder if Bruen will run out of single ecclesiastical nouns after three times in a titular row) lacks such thrift; for once, he's solvent enough to take on the usual suspects. The plot's simpler, almost to the point perhaps of summary rather than elaboration, and the action less violent; fewer run-ins with louts and more time spent among the down-and-outs on Eyre Square than on the shores of the Claddagh.

As always, Bruen through Taylor sums up his city's changes smartly. Shop Street's tourist mayhem, "buskers to the left of me, minstrels to the right," shows how Galwegian charm's thinned today. Its loutish youth sporting fake American accents complete with rapper slang, a dispiriting contrast with the busker's "Carrickfergus": "I stopped and listened to my heritage, my past, calling and cajoling through the ferocious sadness of that song. I put ten euro in that guy's cap and he winked, said, ''God and His family bless you.'" (99)

The prose relies less on musical references and literary citations than before, reflecting perhaps Jack's weariness. He wants to go to America, as so many before him, but policewoman Ridge's condition necessitates his staying around, so meanwhile he solves in his own erratic fashion another death spree. The understated way in which, however, he takes surprising revelations about one Siobhan did make me wonder how taciturn Taylor's realistically expected to be, at least with words if not emotions. There's his offhanded nature to this life-altering discovery and later Clancy's reaction to dramatic news that left me underwhelmed.

This emotional distancing may be intentional, as Bruen strives to filter Taylor's often semi-opaque, muddy, rather than translucent interior state. Stewart's Zen, parodied as it is, may reveal a true lesson in Part Two's epigraph from Seng-Ts'an: "If you work on your mind with your mind, how you can avoid an immense confusion?" (125) In the end, a white feather offers a poignant symbol of the "defeated miracle" that life may represent on this or another, unseen realm. I'll leave it to you to figure this allusion out within these spare, grim, but still somehow soulful pages in the latest Jack Taylor installment (at least in America, where we lag behind one per year! I've reviewed them all as with this one on Amazon US-- and the recent ones on this blog too).

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