Friday, September 12, 2008

The Book You Have to Read: “Rilke on Black,” by Ken Bruen

(Editor’s note: This is the 22nd installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Choosing this time is Tony Black, the Australia-born, Edinburgh-based author of Paying for It, the opening entry in a series starring “hack turned investigator Gus Dury.” A follow-up, Gutted, is currently being subjected to the editing process. It should be out in the summer of 2009.)

I’ve had some dodgy jobs in my time, but it’s been quite a few years since I was a press officer for a Scottish water authority, tasked with getting the media interested in new sewage pumping stations ... shit job, oh yeah.

It was round about this time, on one of my precious lunch-break strolls, that I picked up a book by an author I’d never head of. It name-checked Rainer Maria Rilke in the title and carried a quote on the cover that recalled three more literary heavyweights.

GQ proclaimed the work a fusion of
the paranoia of a Jim Thompson or David Goodis with the sparse vernacular style of an Andrew Vachss.
I was already sold. The reviewer wasn’t finished, though …
The most startlingly original crime novel to emerge this decade …
And, that still wasn’t all …
… from either side of the Atlantic.
The author was Ken Bruen and the novel was Rilke on Black (1997).

Not a big book--it ran to only 150 pages--but a huge book in the development of the new wave of crime fiction which would come to be epitomized by its author. The novel announced the arrival of a bold new voice, a poetic, maddeningly original stylist who would burn a ferocious trail in the years to come.

From the opening lines I knew at once I was in for one hell of a ride.
I’m not a criminal.

I’ve done my share of dodgy things but they managed to slide under the legal line. Then I kidnapped a man, a black man. Even criminals despise this branch of the business. It smacked of cowardice and worse, stupidity.
Set in South London, Rilke on Black--if you haven’t already guessed--is a kidnap caper. Prime crime territory. However, uninitiated to the genre as I was then--and with a head full of Kafka and Camus--I could have sworn it was literary. With the depth of character exploration, and the complex interpersonal narratives that stalk the main plot, I’d stick to that assessment today, but would probably append the term “classic” as well.

Not that it’s lacking in crime.

Nick is an ex-bouncer with a father in the gutter; Dex, a class-A nutter; and Lisa, a druggie femme fatale with a bad mouth. When they decide to take hostage a club owner who has a taste for the poetry of Rilke, the ensuing chaos was like nothing I’d read before. Every page burst with style and substance, poetry and street patois, anger and adrenaline. All of it told with an ease of skill that is the mark of a true original.
       The pub was humming. Bonny was at the counter. A middle-aged guy pulling chat on her. No wonder as she was wearing
       a short black dress
       black tights
       black patent heels, killer high
       the whole
The conventions of grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure had been thrown out with the rest of the writing “rules.” And boy, was the book better for it.

Bruen wasted nothing. His prose so bare, yet so full-to-bursting with incident, development, conflict, and character that after only a couple of pages I found myself turning back, disbelieving I had taken in so much, that such quantity could be delivered to the reader in so few words. It was beyond economy. Like gorging on haiku.

It was clear Bruen was a learned writer, but all of his characters’ intellectual outpourings were well-earned; not one got away with literary grandstanding. There was an obvious link to Hemingway--the book’s author knew that the “erudition shouldn’t show,” that the best place for a message was a Western Union depot. So, when the kidnap victim quotes from Rilke, for example, its effect is to ratchet up the tension, and to contrast the character’s sangfroid with the rapid unraveling of his captors.
       Fixed some food for the guest. He was in a yoga position, the picture of tranquillity. He said, “Do I remind you of the panther?”
       “What ’cos you’re black?”
       “Rilke’s panther … listen … can you hear him … see

               ‘As he paces in cramped circles
               over and over, the monument of
               his powerful soft strides
               is like a ritual dance
               around a centre in which
               a mighty will
               stands paralysed.’”

       “Give it a rest, eh.”
The situation unfolds like a game of cat and mouse, with the roles reversed and then reversed again and again. As a reader, you’re never quite sure where your true sympathies lie. As Bruen’s later works, such as the multi-award winning Jack Taylor detective series (which kicked off in 2001 with The Guards) show, this is one of his true talents: to make us think about a criminal act from multiple viewpoints, to test our perceptions, make us examine our assumptions, and, to put it simply, think.

No mean feat, for any writer. But Bruen was clearly not just any writer.

I soon learnt to ration the pages of Rilke on Black.

Think I managed a whole week of lunch-hour escapes to Bruen’s madcap, bruised world of thuggery and poetry. It would be a bit longer before I escaped the shit job, but a love for the work of Ireland’s own battered genius would never leave me.

1 comment:

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

My wife bought me RILKE ON BLACK last Christmas. My other presents went unopened until I finished it a couple hours later.