Winter Break is here! There's not much winter in Nebraska, but I'm soon heading North and there's snow up there. I can't wait to make snow kitties with my niece (her request) and throw snowballs at my parents' puppy, who is obsessed with snow. But for now, in the days after submitting final grades and putting together my provisional syllabi for spring, I'm working on the other things that need to get started before I head Up North. So, I have my experimental chocolate-mint shortbread (didn't turn out exactly right, but it tastes good) on the counter, cooling, and noir-dark Assam in my favorite teapot. It's Sunday, the Christmas lights are cozy, and I have my fireplace app crackling on my iPad, blues on the iTunes. A little later in the day, I'll flip on my battery-powered candles and bask in their ambience. No actual fire in my apartment these days. Too dangerous. It is, as my mother said when she saw that my sisters had given me these electric candles for my birthday: "Well, your apartment is sort of flammable." Indeed.
But it's a nice day to curl up on the couch with a book, even though that book is one I'm teaching next semester. Or it's one that I need to read for the two articles I'm writing next semester. (In addition to revising and defending my dissertation.)
Today, I finished Ken Bruen's first Jack Taylor novel, The Guards. (Check out the interview I did with him a while back.) And I'm surrounded by the gritty joy of being back in Galway, even if it's in the company of Jack Taylor--who, I have mentioned, is the most thoroughly unlikeable character I keep spending time with. I'd read later books in this series, but never the first one. And since I'm working on this article about the craft of place in Irish crime fiction, looking here at Bruen's first was a good place to start, and this is the joy of being an English teacher, one who gets wrapped up in all incarnations of the page, but in this instance, I'm wrapped up in what I'm reading both as a literature scholar and a creative writer. It's a heady mixture.
The article itself is starting to take shape in my head, but it's a testament to Bruen (who I unashamedly love) that I keep getting distracted from the real reason I'm reading this book, getting lost in the darkness and the craft of the sentences. If you've never read Bruen, you must. It'll take a little getting used to his style--and Jack Taylor himself--but it's worth it. The darkness of this book comes from the sparseness of concrete details, the lack of sensory images, but I realized on this read that Bruen draws Galway not through the kind of concrete details that writers have come to expect from prose, but through people. He mentions the Romanian woman blowing on her pipe outside Easons, and I'm pretty sure I've seen her. It's through these people that he draws the character of Shop Street. It's through the winos that he draws Eyre Square. Bruen doesn't need to tell us that the hospital where the wino Padraig ends up is a bleak, horrible place--he doesn't need to tell us the color of the walls. He just needs to show the orderly giving afternoon tea and biscuits to everyone in the ward except for Padraig.
And then, when you get lulled into the hard quality of what Desi Kenny called "machine gun prose," most of which is contain in Hemingway-spare dialogue, then Bruen hits you with moments like this: "He was one of those skull smokers. Sucked the nicotine in so hard it made his cheekbones bulge. He blew out the smoke with a deep sigh. Whether contentment or agony, it was a close call" (165). Then you just have to sit back and breathe for a while, because he's just knocked the air from you. Sentences are amazing, powerful, beautiful things that should never, ever be underestimated. And this is why. This is why we read. This is why we write.
Thinking about the movement between natural and built environments, where the sunshine is something to be avoided and feared, where the entire nature of the narrative is set up in the first lines of the second chapter: “There are no private eyes in Ireland. The Irish wouldn’t wear it. The concept brushes perilously close to
the hated ‘informer.’ You can get away with most anything except ‘telling’ (5). The places so important to the development of characters and development of plots are essential to the Irish peculiarities of telling and not-telling. Storytelling and secret-keeping. What we tell and what we don't tell. And as I'm thinking more specifically about this novel right now, the three main places this story hangs on--various pubs, Rahoon Cemetery, and Nimmo's Pier--each represent a facet of telling or not telling.
I'm going to reread other Bruen novels in the course of my work on this article, but I'm feeling good about this start. And it reminds me why I like to read crime fiction, especially in the wake of Newtown, when I didn't think I could handle any mention of violence--crime fiction gives readers closure, if not a happy ending, then a mending of the rips and tears and gashes that the crime caused. Whether there's justice or revenge at the end of a novel, that pinhead is ready for the angel's disco. But the good guys generally win--or win something--at the end. And sometimes that's what we need.