By January 5, 2007 2 Comments Read More →

But He's Irish

When I reviewed Ken Bruen’s The Guards way back in 2002–it was the first book of his that I’d read–I wrote that the protagonist, Jack Taylor, was “a bit self-congratulatorily, well, Irish.”

(I wasn’t sure at the time whether “congratulatorily” was an actual word, but it made it past the copyeditor, so I’m sticking with it now.)

I’m two-thirds of the way through Bruen’s latest, Priest, and I have to say that this is the Irish crime novelist’s most Irish novel yet.

Some examples:

My holdall held trousers, one shirt and rosary beads. The Irish survival kit. (p.10)

You will never, and I mean never, catch an Irish person walking under a ladder or not crossing their fingers during a hurling match. (p.14)

Irish women, nine ways to Sunday, they’ll bust your balls. (p.17)

As is usual for Irish pubs, sentries sat at the counter — men in their sixties with worn caps, worn eyes, nursing half-empty pints. (p.18)

Ireland is a land of questions and very, very few answers. (p.19)

Other nations reach for weapons, we reach for relics. (p.25)

And as the saying goes in Ireland, they knew all belonging to you. (p.32)

He fell into step beside me, muttered the Irish benediction, “Sorry for your trouble.” (p.40)

In Ireland, no reply is taken for agreement. (p.41)

The ultimate Irish accolade, bestowed rarely. (p.42)

It had to rain, it was Ireland, our birthright. (p.42)

In Ireland, possibly the greatest sin is to have ideas above your station. (p.46)

In Ireland, we had our own weapon of mass destruction. Alcoholism. (p.47)

She released me, uttered the closest thing to an Irish benediction. “Let me have a look at you.” (p.50)

And that’s just the first fifty pages. Looking at them all together, the effect is almost exhausting. Now, it might seem odd to criticize an Irish writer for writing about the Irish national character, but I’m not taking issue with anything he says. He’s certainly qualified to comment on it and I’m not, so I take all his observations as gospel truth.

It’s just that I keep wondering why he feels compelled to write about it so relentlessly. His novels are published in Great Britain before they’re published in the United States, but it doesn’t feel as if he’s writing for Irish readers. (An equivalent might be for a U.S. writer to keep adding asides like, “In the U.S., we pepper our speech with the word ‘like’” or “As we bumped fists, he intoned the American benediction, ‘I hear that, dude.’”)

So maybe he’s really writing for U.S. audiences. U.S. audiences are notorious for lapping up the Irish lilt. I saw Bruen on a panel at Bouchercon in Chicago and–let me preface this by saying that he truly did seem like the world’s nicest guy–he would footnote his wry asides by saying, “But I’m Irish, what do I know?” The crowd loved it.

So he’s playing the Celtic card. Fair enough, it’s his right. Maybe I’m envious. In the U.S., it’s impossible to make many accurate generalizations about our national character–we’re just too spread-out and culturally diverse. Maybe, deep in my heart, I wish I came from a small country where shared character traits made it possible for me to talk about my fellow citizens as if we were all members of one big dysfunctional family. Maybe I wish my country was seen less as a greedy, planet-eating mob of yokels and more as a tribe of affable, village-dwelling storytellers. It’s possible.

(Of course, the Irish-American relationship is a complicated one: why do so many Irish people live in the U.S. while so many Americans are desperate to return to the auld sod?)

But, reading the book, the references feel relentless. Granted, part of Bruen’s project–besides taking Jack Taylor on another slog through a long, dark night of the soul–is to examine the New Ireland, the Celtic Tiger. When the book starts, Taylor has just spent five months in the loony bin and when he emerges, it’s to an even newer New Ireland than he’s been grousing about for the past bunch of books.

If I’d known then where this initial resolution would take me–into the heart of the Irish soul–would I have turned away? (p.31)

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve been a bit too hard on Bruen in my past reviews. A lot of reviewers rave about him, and while I always find his books worth reading, I usually close them with a nagging sense of having been let down. One complaint is that his spare style rarely leaves me with indelible images. (And not that indelible images require flowery prose, as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road proves.)

I think it’s more that Bruen doesn’t push himself hard enough. He has great talent as a crime writer, and he’s undeniably a fresh, unique voice in the field. But each book capably delivers more or less what the previous one did. And for all the darkness that the tales can offer–at the end of The Dramatist, Taylor’s botched babysitting results in the death of his best friends’ beloved child–there’s an amiability that creeps through and keeps me from buying the low moments. It feels like a story told in a comfortable pub, and I keep waiting for Bruen to neutralize the tragedy by chuckling, “But I’m Irish, so what do I know?”

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

2 Comments on "But He's Irish"

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  1. In Ireland, shamrocks pick you!

  2. Keir says:

    So long as he doesn’t get his own theater in Branson….

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