Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

And Now A Word From Our Sponsors

As some of you already know, Lily May Burke (right) was born on March 26th, just over nine weeks ago. As those of you with kids will already appreciate, Lily’s birth was the most profound event of my life by a distance that should really be measured in light years, but even before she was born I had come to realise that I would resent the time I spent writing for taking me away from the new baby.
  Because of that I made sure I finished the sequel to THE BIG O, which isn’t due until October, by mid-February. Once that was done I swore that I wouldn’t write again for six months after the baby was born. I lasted almost three weeks after Lily was born.
  I persuaded myself that redrafting doesn’t constitute real writing, even though it’s the part I enjoy the most, so I got out a story I wrote about five years ago and started messing around with it. The first section comes below.
  Why am I posting it on a blog? Well, because I can. And because I’m interested to see what kind of reaction this kind of post might generate, as well as the more specific kind of feedback that may or may not come via the comment box or email. Any and all bouquets, brickbats, thoughts and impressions welcome.
  The plan is to post a new section once a week. With a fair wind and enough interest, I should have the entire novel posted up on the blog within three months.
  Sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin …

A GONZO NOIR / Declan Burke
I: Winter

‘You don’t remember me,’ he says.
  I allow that I don’t. But then I haven’t had my coffee yet, or even a smoke.
  This is in the back garden early on a Tuesday morning in late spring out on the decking overlooking the pond. The sun coming up, the day already warm.
  ‘It’s probably the eye-patch,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t blond then, either.’ He has a platinum blond crew-cut, Newman-blue eyes and a square jaw. I guess him to be mid-thirties. ‘And I was about three inches shorter.
  ‘A man needs some stature,’ he says.

I go inside and draw him a cup of coffee wondering what he’s doing in my back garden before I’ve even had my first cigarette. Back out on the decking I say, ‘I give up. Who are you?’
  ‘Karlsson,’ he says.
  ‘Should I know you?’ I say, blowing on my coffee. ‘Have we met?’
  ‘In a manner of speaking.’
  ‘I don’t follow.’
  ‘You remember Karlsson, right? The porter.’
  ‘The hospital porter?’
  ‘Him, yeah.’
  I reach for the smokes and get one lit. Sip some coffee and wait for a tic or flinch to give him away. He only stares.
  ‘Okay,’ I say, ‘I’ll play along. You’re Karlsson. So what can I do for you?’
  ‘You can start by telling me what happened.’
  ‘With you? Nothing.’ I explain that first drafts get written and printed out and then they go on the shelf for at least six months. No exceptions.
  ‘Fair go,’ he says. ‘But it’s been nearly five years now. I mean, I was 28 when you wrote that draft. And I know you didn’t stop writing. I saw that new one, The Big O, it arrived on the shelf about two years ago.’
  ‘Things just went in a different direction, man. No offence.’
  ‘I never thought you did it deliberately,’ he says. ‘But you should know, I’m stuck in limbo here.
  ‘Publish or be damned,’ he says.

Karlsson was a hospital porter who assisted old people who wanted to die. His girlfriend found out. Then the cops got involved because the girlfriend contacted them anonymously before confronting Karlsson, only the cops wound up more concerned about where the girlfriend, Cassie, had gone.
  ‘If you want the truth of it,’ I say, ‘I’m not really sure I ever intended that one to see the light of day. It was just a bunch of stuff I needed to write at the time, get out onto the page. These days I write comedy. It’s easier, for one. And more fun. Life is shitty enough for people without them spending their precious reading time on morbid stuff.’
  ‘Woah,’ he says. ‘Are you telling me you never even sent it away?’
  ‘I didn’t just bury it.’ I’m feeling faintly, ridiculously, defensive. ‘I gave it to my agent.’
  ‘And what did he say?’
  ‘He said he’d never read anything like it before. He reckoned he had to stop taking notes about halfway in and just read it through. I think the pervy stuff had him a bit freaked.’
  ‘That’s good, right?’
  ‘Not in today’s market. Freaking your agent isn’t cool anymore.’
  ‘And he never read it again?’
  ‘He was about to but I stopped him. I was showing him The Big O that day.’
  ‘And he liked that better.’
  ‘I think he’d have liked the Taiwan phonebook better.’

We sit in silence while he digests that. The sun clears the Wicklow Hills to the south and the garden brightens up. Clematis buds starting to show, some pink apple blossom, snowdrops and daffodils nodding on the faint breeze. Now and again a quick flash of orange in the pond, the pair of golden carp, Jaws and Moby Dick. The little fountain pootling away to itself like a happy baby.
  The heartburn is bad this morning, a Jameson hangover heartburn. I go inside and take a slug of Gaviscon, get the fish food. ‘Listen,’ I say while I feed the carp, ‘that’s tough about the whole limbo thing. But right now I’m working on something else and I’m already half-an-hour into my writing time, so ––’
  ‘What happens me?’ he says. The cigarette he filched burns down between his fingers.
  ‘I’ve no idea.’
  ‘You can’t leave me stuck here.’
  ‘I hear you. But my problem is that these days I only get so much time to write. I’m married now, and we have a little baby. She’s called Lily.’
  He congratulates me, grudging it.
  ‘The point I’m making is, I can’t afford to spend any time on anything that isn’t at least potentially commercial. Or, to be perfectly frank, anything I don’t enjoy doing. That dark shit’s hard work. And if I don’t like reading back ––’
  ‘If it’s dark,’ he says, ‘whose fault is that?’
  ‘Mine, sure. But ––’
  ‘But schmut. If you made it dark you can make it funny. Just go back over it.’
  ‘Make euthanasia funny?’
  ‘Just listen to me a minute,’ he says. ‘Can you sit down and just listen? You owe me that much, at least.’
  He’s right. I put the tin of fish-food on the table and sit down, spark another smoke.
  ‘See,’ he says after a moment or two, ‘I’m just not that kind of guy. The Karlsson guy, I mean. I even changed my name when I dyed my hair. I’m called Billy now.’
  ‘I’m aiming to normalise things all round.’
  ‘Then the eye-patch is probably too much.’
  ‘That was just to get your attention.’ He peels off the patch. There’s an empty socket underneath. He pats the pockets of his zip-up sweater and comes up with a pair of tinted shades, slips them on.
  ‘What happened your eye?’
  ‘You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Anyway, this Karlsson guy – I’m not him. Not anymore. And I don’t think I ever was. I mean, I liked Cassie. Liked her a lot. And even if I didn’t I wouldn’t just kill her to get off a euthanasia rap. I’d have done a flit. The old folks, they were one thing, they wanted to die and I was helping them out. But Cassie, no way.’
  ‘I never actually said you killed her.’
  ‘No, but you left it hanging.’
  ‘As far as I can remember,’ I say, ‘I gave you a happy ending. You got away with it, right? The cop investigating, he turned out insane, had all these theories about population control. A big fan of the Chinese, if memory serves.’
  ‘Even I didn’t believe that,’ he says. ‘That ending was a mess.’
  I allow that it was.
  ‘You can do better than that,’ he says.
  ‘Not with you I can’t.’
  ‘I’m not the problem, man. The story’s the problem.’
  ‘The story’s what it is,’ I say. ‘And it’s told now.’
  ‘I didn’t hear any fat ladies singing,’ he says.

I stub out the cigarette. ‘Listen, Karlsson, I have to ––’
  ‘Billy, yeah. Listen, Billy, I have to go. I need to be at work at ten-thirty and I only get two hours a day to write. So …’
  ‘The story was too freaky,’ he says. He’s holding up a hand to delay me. ‘Too out there but not big enough. Plus you had me down as a total dingbat. And these are things that can be changed.’
  ‘I really don’t know if they can.’
  ‘Tell me this,’ he says. ‘How long have you spent thinking about me in the last five years?’
  ‘I’ve thought about you, sure. And I wish ––’
  ‘I think I’ve got a way to make it bigger. Although you’d have to be more honest about me,’ he says. ‘If it was to work, I’d have to be more real. More me, y’know?’
  ‘Right now you’re sitting on the deck in my backyard smoking my cigarettes. I don’t know if I could handle you getting any more real.’
  ‘That’s because I’m Billy now. Karlsson never showed up here, did he?’
  ‘Funnily enough, he never did.’
  ‘Just as well,’ he says. ‘He’d probably have kidnapped little Lily and tortured her until you’d rewritten the story the way he wanted it.’
  ‘Y’know, I think Karlsson liked who he was. I don’t think he’d have had any issues with what happened to Cassie.’
  ‘Like that Ripley guy, right? A sociopath.’ He shrugs. ‘Who wants to live like that?’ He pierces me with the Newman-blue eyes. ‘You think I wouldn’t like a little Lily to play with?’
  ‘Do you?’
  ‘I don’t know. I’m not feeling it, if that’s what you’re asking. But they say men don’t become fathers until their baby is born.’
  ‘That was true for me, yeah.’
  He nods. ‘Look, all I’m asking for is one more go, see if I can’t make it out this time.’
  ‘Out of this limbo.’
  ‘Sure. Maybe if I was to get some kind of written permission from the old folks, so I’d have something to show Cassie when she found out about the euthanasia. That could help.’
  ‘It’d help you and Cassie, maybe. But it wouldn’t do much for the conflict in the story.’
  ‘That’s the other thing,’ he says. ‘I think you need a different kind of conflict. I mean, a hospital porter bumping off old people? You can get that stuff in the newspapers. Why would anyone want to read it in a book?’
  ‘I guess it’d depend on how interesting the killer is.’
  ‘Between you and me, you’re no Patricia Highsmith.’
 I allow that I’m not.
  ‘If you want my opinion,’ he says, ‘the conflicts that work best are between the reader and a character they like who’s doing stuff they wouldn’t generally tolerate. Your mistake was to make Karlsson a total wack-job. No one who wasn’t a complete fruit could like him.’
  ‘Okay, so we make you likeable. What then?’
  ‘We blow up the hospital.’

  © Declan Burke, 2008


bookwitch said...

I give up. I had to read it after all.

Great stuff. Keep it up, and keep Karlsson.

You have a deck? Bet mine is bigger.

John McFetridge said...

Okay, I'm hooked.

Gerard Brennan said...

‘Make euthanasia funny?’

What a cracking line. Laughed out loud.

Must make time to email you about this later. Excellent read.


Declan Burke said...

Cheers for the feedback, folks ... much obliged. Oh, Ms Witch? What's this obsession with SIZE all of a sudden? To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a deck is just a deck ... Cheers, Deck ... sorry, Dec

Peter Rozovsky said...

I told someone about the exquisite discipline you showed in so beautifully integrating your working life and your reproductive cycles. This guy told me that a Web site exists to help men with this task. It apparently offers a list of major sporting events for the year to come along with dates that they should avoid conceiving a child if they don't want to miss the events.

Apparently you had trouble calling up the site. That's why we missed yoi at NoirCon.
Detectives Beyond Borders
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