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.

Friday, June 6, 2008

“No, I’M Donald Westlake, And My Wife Is Too.”

A Minister for Propaganda Elf writes: “The Grand Vizier would have it be known that he is abandoning his beautiful wife and child, Mrs Grand Viz and the Princess Lilyput (right), the heartless bugger. A temporary measure, the separation will nonetheless last the entire weekend, the duration of which the Grand Viz will spend in the Gomorrah-style flesh-pit of Bristol at the Crime Fest with all the other heartless buggers who have abandoned their families for the sake of crime fiction.
  “Once there, of course, all those wonderful writers, bloggers, readers, editors, publishers and publicists the Grand Viz has met through Crime Always Pays will very quickly realise that dropping by the blog to catch up for five minutes on a daily basis is really as much as any sentient human being can stick of him. Still, it can’t be Mills and Boon every day, right?
  “Anyhoo, given that the Grand Viz will be away, the elves will party hearty all weekend, turning CAP Towers into a Bond villain’s lair stocked to the rafters with supermodels with a PhD in titillation. Belly-dancing dwarves, nose-ning, sequins and a large vat of our Patented Elf-Wonking Juice™ are also likely to feature heavily.
  “As a result, the Crime Always Pays blog will only be updated in the very unlikely event that the Grand Viz comes first in the Last Laugh Award by means other than (a) foul or (b) alphabetical. To wit:
The Last Laugh Award nominees:
Declan Burke, THE BIG O (Hag’s Head Press)
Ruth Dudley Edwards, MURDERING AMERICANS (Poisoned Pen Press UK)
Alan Guthrie, HARD MAN (Polygon)
Deanna Raybourn, SILENT IN THE GRAVE (MIRA Books)
Mike Ripley, ANGEL’S SHARE (Alison & Busby)
L. C. Tyler, THE HERRING SELLER’S APPRENTICE (Macmillan New Writing)
Donald Westlake, WHAT’S SO FUNNY? (Quercus)
  “Of course, once it’s announced that Donald Westlake won’t be turning up to collect his gong in person, who’s to say who did what to who and how in the ensuing stampede to the podium to swipe his award? Dignity schmignity, eh?
  “And now, if you don’t mind, I have a small tumbler of Patented Elf-Wonking Juice™ awaiting my tender ministrations. Peace, out.”

What Kate T Did Next

The ever-radiant Ms Witch does wonderful work over at her interweb yokeybus, Bookwitch, but she excelled herself in bringing to our attention the blend of fairies, juvenile delinquents, Irish crime fiction and Battenberg cake that is Kate Thompson’s latest offering, CREATURE OF THE NIGHT. Quoth Ms Witch:
Can you have gritty realism and fairies at the same time? Probably, as this is what Kate Thompson has done in her new book CREATURE OF THE NIGHT. It’s certainly different and it’s much darker than Kate’s other novels.
  From the fiddle-playing farmers of her recent books, this is unemployment, young unmarried mothers, juvenile delinquents; plonked down in the Irish countryside. There’s a disappeared Swede (with a Danish name…), a fairy with a fondness for Battenberg cake, an old rumour of a murdered child and a marvellously forgiving and down-to-earth local family.
  There’s a lot of hope in this story, but it doesn’t materialise quite in the fairy story way that you’d like it to. For every step forward, Bobby and his family take several steps backwards, into their Dublin world of debts, drugs, car theft and violence. Irish fictional crime seems to be big these days, and it’s interesting to see it move into children’s books.
  I liked this book, but considering how much I usually love epilogues, this one would have been better off without one, if only because it messes with the time scale of things. And I’d have liked my own imagination to go to work on the last couple of paragraphs. – Book Witch
Marvellous stuff, and thank you kindly, Ms Witch. Oh, but before you go? Given that it’s June 6th, we’d like to wish you a very happy birthday (right); your ever-radiant daughter Helen assures us that it is your 29th. Many happy returns, ma’am …


The story so far: Failed author Declan Burke (right), embittered but still passably handsome, wakes up one morning to find a stranger in his back garden. The stranger introduces himself as Karlsson, a hospital porter who assists old people who want to die and the hero of a first draft of a novel Burke wrote some five years previously. Now calling himself Billy, he suggests a redraft of the story that includes blowing up the hospital where he works. Intrigued, Burke agrees to a collaboration, but things do not go swimmingly; when things don’t go entirely Billy’s way, Burke’s three-month-old daughter, Lily, goes missing and is discovered in the garden shed. Outraged, Burke takes drastic steps to eliminate Billy …
  Section 1 comes here; Section 2 here; Section 3 here. Now read on …

A GONZO NOIR / Declan Burke

‘I thought only Nazis burned books,’ he says, slouching up the gravel path.
  I squirt some more lighter fluid on the m/s.
  ‘Just so you know,’ I say, ‘I never liked Karlsson from the start. That’s why I invented you, so I could stomach a redraft. But I think I like you even less.’
  ‘Boo-hoo,’ he says, sitting down.
  ‘He was only ever an avatar,’ I say, ‘so I could purge all that nasty shit I didn’t like about myself. You haven’t realised yet?’
  ‘Realised what?’
  ‘That I started that story when I met Aileen. I mean, I knew almost immediately she was the one, that if I got my act together we could go the distance. And something somewhere in the back of my head knew that I had to straighten up and fly right, get rid of all the poison, so I wouldn’t infect her or any kids we might have.’
  ‘That’s noble,’ he snickers.
  I flick the Zippo to life, hold it over the m/s. ‘Any last words?’
  ‘The genie’s out of the bottle, man. I’m out there. I’m a fucking virus, airborne.’
  ‘Nice try. But viruses don’t travel that way.’
  ‘Whatever. Burn that,’ he nods at the m/s, ‘and you’re just burning a chrysalis.’
  ‘You’re a butterfly, you’re a virus … Make up your mind.’
  ‘Try this,’ he says. He takes one of my cigarettes, then relieves me of the Zippo and sparks it up. When he exhales he lays the lit Zippo on the m/s. A bluey-yellow flame ignites, fanned by the mild breeze.
  We watch the m/s burn. ‘Oh, what a world, what a world,’ he croons.

I only have to tell my supervisor once that I know where he parks his car. He immediately finds a new parking space. This displays tactical awareness. This suggests that he has, in fact, been listening. I am pleasantly surprised.
  It takes a full twenty minutes to locate his new parking space. It is in the middle of one of the smaller car parks on the eastern side of the hospital, which is bounded on three sides by manicured shrubs. The Ox Mountains a round-shouldered skulking in the distance.
  He chooses this location because his office window, three floors up, offers panoramic views of the entire car park. This suggests that he is a thinker. This suggests cunning. This suggests that he is the kind of strategist who presumes his foe also clocks off for lunch.
  I loiter at the end of the corridor until he emerges from his office, locks the door and saunters towards the elevators. I take the stairs to the basement floor. He is sitting at the far end of the canteen, eating in the company of two other supervisors.
  I make my way out to the car park on the east side and smoke a banned cigarette, cupping it in my hand and exhaling on the frosty air. When the cigarette is finished I thread my way through the lines of parked cars to his Opel Corsa. I drop the butt at the driver’s door and grind it flat.
  Blood roars in my ears. Tomorrow I invade Poland, etc.

‘I know you probably won’t be interested in this,’ Cassie says, ‘but …’
  We are in Zanzibar, a coffee bar on Old Market Street, seated at a counter beside the plate-glass window looking out at the pigeon-soiled statue of Lady Erin. While Cassie tells me what it is she thinks I won’t be interested in I ponder on how women start out trying to fuck their fathers and wind up fending off their prepubescent sons.
  I wonder if the waitress, who is Polish, might inadvertently yelp something containing guttural vowels at her moment of climax.
  I despair at how a woman’s sexual peak arrives just as her visible feminine attributes begin to sag, expand, wrinkle and dissipate.
  I sympathise with Diana, peering down from Olympus, horrified as Herostratus burns her temple to the ground in order that posterity might afford him a footnote.
  I think about how those women who are enlightened enough to realise that men probably won’t be interested in what they have to say have mined a nugget akin to a glass diamond.
  ‘What do you think?’ Cassie says.
  ‘About what?’
  ‘You weren’t listening, were you?’
  ‘Not to you, no.’
  ‘Who then?’
  Cassie blinks, then cocks an ear to the stereo. ‘Diana Ross?’
  ‘Diana. The goddess who had her temple burned down by a man who wanted to be remembered.’
  ‘What has that to do with anything?’
  ‘Isn’t that why we’re here? Why we’re together? So I can eventually destroy your temple and be remembered?’
  ‘What’re you talking about, temples?’
  ‘The body is a temple, Cass. A child’s passage through the vaginal canal is an act of destruction. Hips crack, abdominal plates split. There is sundry ripping and tearing. All so my name can percolate down through the generations.’
  I use the word ‘percolate’ because we are in a coffee shop. Cassie stares at me for a long time, then turns away to gaze out at Lady Erin. She spoons the cream in her cappuccino and says, ‘K, how come you have to make everything more difficult than it really is?’
  ‘Nothing’s more difficult than it really is, Cass. The myth that something can be easier than it really is was devised by Hoover salesmen.’
  ‘You know your problem? You don’t have the imagination to see how things can be better.’
  ‘And your problem is you think I only have one problem.’
  My line for today comes courtesy of Dame Iris Murdoch: You can live or tell; not both at once.

‘If you’re aiming for reverse psychology on the whole Cassie getting pregnant thing,’ I say, ‘you’re laying it on a bit thick.’
  ‘What’s the best way to get a woman’s attention?’ he says, laying his sheet of paper down.
  ‘Pretend you don’t care.’
  ‘Treat ’em mean,’ he says, ‘keep ’em keen.’ He nods at my sheet of paper. ‘So what’ve you got?’
  ‘You meet the old guy for the first time.’
  ‘Yeah, I liked him,’ he says.

‘Being old is like being hungover all day, every day,’ the old man says. His voice crackles like an old 78. ‘The worst hangover you’ve ever had. So bad you wanted to do nothing but cry but you were afraid the weeping would split your skull. Imagine that all day, every day,’ he says.
  This man is 79 years old. In theory he should be dead. In Ireland, statistically speaking, men die at 72 and women at 75. This is nature’s way of affording women the opportunity of covering every possible conversational gambit relating to the latest manifestation of male betrayal.
  ‘People can’t understand how someone might want to die,’ the old man says. He has recently had his leg amputated at the knee, lest the gangrene that began with an infected ingrown toenail spreads to the rest of his body, like bush-fire reaching kindling. ‘They don’t understand that everything winds down,’ he says. ‘They don’t want to face the fact that all mechanisms wear out. The will to live is an invisible engine, with its own pumps and valves.’
  He chooses a peach-flavoured yoghurt and a bar of plain Dairy Milk chocolate from the trolley. ‘You know you’re old when you can’t eat the Fruit ‘n’ Nut anymore,’ he says.
  ‘The nurse tells me you were a mechanic,’ I say.
  His hands shake so violently that his fingers gain no purchase on the chocolate’s silver foil. I take the bar, peel back some of the wrapper, hand it over. He’s nodding his head. ‘That’s right,’ he says, ‘for near on forty years.’ He begins sucking on a corner of the Dairy Milk. ‘Cars today, who’d be arsed fixing them up?’ His chest rumbles when he emphasises a word. ‘When I was a lad I made soapbox carts that were built better than cars today.’
  I note that he has to buy his own chocolate and yoghurt from my concession cart and that his pyjama collar is grimy. These things tell me that visitors come rarely, if at all. His hair is lush, white as the pillowcase on which it flares. His face is deeply lined, but softly, so he resembles a post-coital Beckett. The eyes are rheumy, red-limned.
  ‘Something I’ve always wanted to ask a mechanic,’ I say.
  The faded blue eyes sparkle. ‘Is that a fact?’ He pats his leg. ‘Fire away, son, I’m going nowhere.’
  ‘See in the movies, when someone cuts a brake cable halfway through, so the car only crashes later. Does that really work?’
  The bushy eyebrows flicker, then mesh. ‘Is there someone you don’t like, son?’
  I laugh quietly, so as not to disturb the other patients. ‘Not at all,’ I say. ‘I’m a writer, I’m working on a short story where a car crashes. I just want to know if that brake cable thing works. I don’t want any mechanics reading the story and not taking it seriously.’
  He doesn’t believe me. But his eyes sparkle. He’s looking at one last opportunity for mischief with no possible repercussions. ‘Tell me the story,’ he says, ‘and I’ll let you know if it sounds wrong.’
  I sketch the outline of a story involving a fatal car accident. He sucks on his chocolate. When I’m finished, he nods. ‘That sounds alright,’ he says. ‘I mean, there’s nothing wrong with the actual details. But the story’s rubbish.’
  ‘That’s what’s wrong with the world today,’ I say. ‘Everyone’s a critic.’
  He laughs, but it degenerates into a rumbling cough. His whole body shudders. The tubes in his arms and nose rattle like a ship’s rigging in a gale. When the spasm passes he says, ‘What’s wrong with the world today, son, is mechanics are reading short stories.’
  ‘Maybe you’ve a point at that,’ I say. ‘See you tomorrow night.’
  I leave the ward, the cart’s wheels squeaking like uppity slave mice. I’m thinking about how the will to live is an invisible engine, with its own pumps and valves. I’m thinking about how engines can be kick-started if only you can pump enough juice through the jump-leads. I’m thinking about how engines can be scuppered with something as simple as a handful of sugar.

I meet Frankie for coffee in the hospital canteen. He seems distracted, irritable. We talk football for a while, and then I say, ‘Don’t suppose you’ve seen Tommo? I’ve a couple of books for him in my locker, he was supposed to pick them up yesterday.’
  ‘Tommo got the boot,’ he says. ‘Austin too.’
  ‘No way.’
  He nods, a glum expression on his face. ‘I got in a load of shit for being away from the desk covering for those fuckers. So I had to write a report.’
  ‘What’d you say?’
  ‘Nothing. Just that the boys were out sick that day and I had to cover the screens.’
  ‘And they got the boot for that?’
  ‘Not just that. When they checked the records they realised the boys were out sick about five days out of every forty. So the boys got sent for a check-up, standard procedure, to make sure they didn’t have some long-term infection that could screw people up in here.’
  ‘And what?’
  ‘They had to take a pee test.’
  ‘Fuckin A. The guy doing the test got stoned off the whiff of piss.’
  ‘Half their luck.’
  ‘Tell me about it. Now they’re not recruiting anyone to take their place. Cost-management cutbacks.’
  ‘So who’s doing their jobs?’
  Frankie jabs a thumb into his chest. ‘Me,’ he says. ‘They’ve given me a promotion, made me Divisional Representative, whatever the fuck that is.’
  ‘So you’re a supervisor with no one to supervise.’
  ‘That’s about it, yeah.’
  ‘Okay. But if it’s Tommo and Austin’s work you’re doing, you’ll hardly break a sweat.’
  ‘I know.’ He drains the dregs of his coffee. ‘But still, the boys were mates.’ He glances at his watch, then stands up. ‘C’mon,’ he says, ‘we’d better get back or we’ll be next for the heave-ho.’
  ‘If you want a pint later on, have a chat, just give me a buzz.’
  ‘Will do.’

‘You’re dumping Tommo and Austin?’
  Billy shrugs. ‘Now they can stay home all day and get stoned.’
  ‘What if they can’t meet rent?’
  ‘How’s that my fault?’ he says.
  ‘You’re the one wrote them out of your story.’
  He thinks about that. ‘Okay,’ he says, ‘how about I put them in a car accident? Nothing too serious, just enough to put them in wheelchairs, get them a disability benefit. All they ever did was sit around on their fat holes toking anyway.’
  He shrugs it off. ‘Listen,’ he says, ‘I’ve been thinking. You and me, right, we should be able to communicate telepathically.’
  ‘What’d you do, break into Tommo’s stash?’
  ‘Seriously. Hear this.’ He stares intently at me, his one eye narrowing. Then he relaxes. ‘Well?’
  ‘Nothing, no. Telepathy’s bullshit, Billy.’
  ‘In the real world, maybe. But we could write that we’re telepathic.’
  ‘No offence, man, but I don’t want to be able to read your mind. And I definitely don’t want you reading mine.’
  ‘Maybe you’re right.’ He shrugs. ‘It was just an idea, to save us all this talking. Like, if we were telepathic, I wouldn’t have to come all the way to Enniskerry every morning.’
  ‘I don’t know about that. Telepathy, even if it worked, it’d probably have a limited range.’
  ‘You think?’
  ‘Anyway, we’re not trying it.’
  ‘Fair go,’ he says. He crumples up a sheet of paper, draws out the next. ‘I’ve had another bash at the Cassie novel,’ he says.
  ‘I thought we were dumping that.’
  ‘Bear with me,’ he says. ‘I think I might be on to something.’

Sermo Vulgus: A Novel (Excerpt)

Cassie, you said diamonds were stone bewildered, confused and frightened by the glow in their soul. We are machines, you said, churning out rusted flakes of misunderstanding, but diamonds are doubts radiating hope.
  Cassie, you said you would never wear diamonds. Diamonds, you said, are smug egos. They are too hard, you said, hard as the bones our yesterdays gnaw. You said only braided lightning would grace your finger; only a garland woven from a re-leafed oak would adorn your head. Can’t we at least try, you said, to draw a straight line through the heart of every sun?
  Cassie, you quoted Schoendoerffer on grey eyes: “Grey eyes are peculiar in that they betray no emotion, and in its absence one cannot help imagining a world of violence and passion behind their gaze.” I think you wished your eyes were Schoendoerffer grey, but they were wide and candid and the colour of indecision.
  Cassie, you were no reader of German. Thus I challenge the legitimacy of your perceptions. Now, when it is already too late, I dare you to consider that Xan Fielding’s translation of Farewell to the King improved Schoendoerffer’s original text.
  Cassie, I beg you to admit possibility. For your approval I posit the hypothesis that nothing is impossible so long as we are prepared to consider its possibility. Only in an infinite universe can hope spring eternal.
  Cassie, it is possible to try to braid lightning, to re-leaf your oak, to draw a straight line through the heart of every sun. Cassie, it is possible to try at least. It is still legitimate to hope, even now, when the ash of the Six Million falls with the acid rain.
  Cassie, are we really so far gone?

‘You’ve read Farewell to the King?’
  ‘Sure,’ he says. ‘I liked the cover.’
  ‘Why, what’s it look like?’
  ‘Your cover, I mean.’
  ‘Oh.’ My copy of Farewell to the King I found like an orphan in a secondhand bookshop re-covered with cheap leather binding. ‘You read the books on my shelves?’
  ‘I’ve been in limbo on your shelf for the last five years,’ he says. ‘And there’s only so much porn a man can download off the web.’
  ‘How many have you read?’
  ‘Nearly everything,’ he says. ‘I’m saving Ulysses and the Russians for last.’
  ‘Good plan.’
  ‘Who the hell can read those Russians?’ he says. ‘The characters’ names are nearly short stories in themselves.’
  ‘Being honest, they’re only up there for show. Them and Kafka. And Beckett.’
  ‘Thank Christ for that,’ he says. ‘I thought I was the only moron around here.’

Aileen has nightmares. Not every night, but often enough for them to become worrying. She thrashes around, sweating, calling out Lily’s name until I wake her. Last night I had to take Lily out of the cot and bring her into the bed before Aileen would settle again.
  Billy believes that I am Neville Chamberlain, waving the pages of the m/s around to convince myself that he and I have peace in our time.
  I prefer to think of myself as Churchill in the early months of 1940, whiling away the phoney war and wishing the Japs would hurry up and bomb Pearl Harbour.
  I’m under no illusions. It’s only a matter of time before his blitz begins.

Today is a Red Letter day. Today was worth the wanton massacre of oxygen molecules required to keep me alive.
  Early this morning a nurse discovered an old woman dead in her bed. There are suggestions that the death was premature. There are hints that the miserable existence the old woman eked out between bouts of excruciating bowel pain was abruptly terminated.
  Mrs McCaffrey’s was the third unusual death in nineteen months. All three suffered from chronic agonies with no hope of reprieve. All three had private rooms. Mrs McCaffrey appears to have been smothered with her own pillow, an embroidered affair she’d had brought from her home when she realised she was in for the long haul.
  Rumours surge along the corridors. Scandal plummets down elevator shafts. The speed of light is left standing in the traps. There are uninspired whispers about an Angel of Death. The word ‘euthanasia’ enjoys a brief renaissance.
  Despite the best efforts of the hospital’s board of directors, the cops are called in. They are discreet. They are aware of the delicate nature of the situation. People cannot afford to believe that a hospital could be a place where people can die willy-nilly. There are research grants at stake here.
  I am called for interview. These are held in the office of the Director of Public Relations on the sixth floor. It is a big, airy office. Potted plants feature. I sit in the leather chair and immediately feel my posture improve.
  The cops ask if I was working last night. I tell them I was. They already know this.
  They ask if I knew Mrs McCaffrey. Yes, I say. They already know this too.
  They ask if I visited her last night with my concession cart.
  ‘Not last night, no.’
  ‘How come?’ says the cop with the salt-and-pepper hair.
  ‘She doesn’t like anything on the cart,’ I say. ‘I’ve offered to bring her anything she wants but she can’t eat normal stuff. I think she has bowel cancer. Or had, rather.’
  ‘See anything unusual on your rounds last night?’
  ‘It’s a hospital. Pretty much everything that goes on around here is unusual.’
  ‘Okay. But was there anyone around who shouldn’t have been? Anything out of the ordinary?’
  ‘Not that I can think of, no.’
  The other cop has florid jowls and small porcine eyes. He taps a folder on the desk in front of him. ‘It says here you’ve been the subject of a number of disciplinary procedures.’
  ‘That’s not exactly a crime.’
  He bristles. ‘We decide what and what’s not a crime.’
  ‘No, you don’t. If you want to criminalise attitude, call a referendum. Then we’ll decide what’s a crime and what isn’t, and you’ll enforce the laws we vote in. That’s the peachy thing about democracy.’
  ‘How come you’re trying to be difficult?’
  The way he says it, I am now officially Public Enemy # 1. This is a man who needs enemies. This is a man who needs justification for the chip on his shoulder and has found his true vocation as a vampire feeding off crime.
  ‘I’m not trying to be difficult,’ I say. ‘I’m co-operating. Anyway, how would insisting on my rights be making things difficult?’
  Salt-and-Pepper says, ‘How long have you worked here?’
  ‘Nearly two years. That’s in the file, along with the disciplinary stuff.’
  He tugs his nose. ‘Like your job?’
  ‘It’s a job. And I like meeting new people.’
  ‘You get to see many people die during the course of your duties?’
  ‘Some. You?’
  He sucks on a front tooth. ‘How does that make you feel, watching people die? I mean, are you comfortable with seeing people in pain?’
  ‘Not especially. But you get used to anything if you stick at it long enough.’
  ‘That’s not what I asked.’
  Florid Jowls says, ‘Say someone begs you to end their life, to do them a favour and put them out of their misery – what do you do?’
  ‘I call a nurse. They’re obviously in need of a shot of morphine, something along those lines.’
  ‘Did Mrs McCaffrey ever talk about wanting to die?’
  ‘No. But I don’t think she had a lot to live for.’
  ‘Why’s that?’
  ‘She talked about how no one ever came to visit her. She said her husband died four years ago.’ They already know this. ‘People can die of a broken heart,’ I say. ‘That’s a medical fact. Hearts can actually break.’
  ‘So you did talk to her.’
  ‘She talked to me. I just listened. Old people who are dying only want one thing, the chance to tell their story. To pass their lives on. All they want to know is that life hasn’t been a stupid waste of time.’
  Florid Jowls says, ‘And you told her that?’
  ‘Sure. What’s it cost to tell a dying person a lie?’
  ‘When’s the last time you saw Mrs McCaffrey?’ Salt-and-Pepper says.
  ‘About three nights ago.’
  ‘You’re sure about that?’
  ‘Certain, yeah.’
  ‘Okay,’ Florid Jowls says, ‘you can go. But we might want to talk to you again.’
  I head for the door. ‘A word to the wise,’ Salt-and-Pepper says. ‘No one likes a smart-arse.’
  ‘Not everyone needs to be liked,’ I say.
  I can tell, by the way his eyes narrow, that he is not unaccustomed to considering this concept. I close the door behind me and breathe quick, shallow breaths. Blood roars in my ears. Tomorrow I bomb Nagasaki, etc.

  © Declan Burke, 2008

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: THE BLOOMSDAY DEAD by Adrian McKinty

The concluding part of Adrian McKinty’s ‘Dead’ trilogy – following on from DEAD I WELL MAY BE (2003) and THE DEAD YARD (2006) – finds his series protagonist, the Belfast-born Michael Forsythe, back in Ireland for the first time since he left Ireland in 1991. In the first novel, a betrayed Forsythe destroyed the Bronx-based gang of Darkey White in a succession of revenge killings; in the second, while hiding out on a FBI witness protection programme, he infiltrated a U.S.-based crew of rogue Republican paramilitaries with the same net result.
  Compelling thrillers written in a hard-bitten, muscular style, the novels are given an unconventional twist by virtue of Forsythe’s unusually perceptive insights. A seemingly indestructible former British soldier, the complex and well-read character is as likely to quote Euripides, Melville or James Joyce as he is to cold-bloodedly garrotte anyone who gets in his way. A borderline sociopath, he is a fascinating blend of Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne and Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley.
  In THE BLOOMSDAY DEAD, Forsythe responds to a call from Bridget, his ex-lover and the former girlfriend of Darkey White, who requests his presence in Belfast to help her find her abducted daughter. Arriving in Dublin on June 16 – Bloomsday, honouring the hero of James Joyce’s Ulysses – Michael has 24 hours to find Bridget’s daughter and thus cancel his debt of blood or face the fatal consequences.
  McKinty is a rare writer, one who can combine the often limiting staccato rhythms of crime fiction with a lyrical flair for language. Forsythe is brusque and blunt in his public exchanges, lethal when trapped in a tight spot (of which there are many in this furiously paced tale, which loosely follows the path laid down by both Leopold Bloom and Odysseus), and yet he is possessed of a poet’s soul during his frequent interior monologues. The violence is etched into the page, as if stamped there by the force of its authenticity, but McKinty never forgets that his first priority is to entertain, and he leavens the bleakness with flashes of mordant humour.
  It’s not a perfect novel by any means. McKinty, born and raised in Northern Ireland but living the U.S. for over a decade, has Forsythe rediscovering post-Celtic Tiger Dublin through an exile’s eyes, but even so there are minor omissions and distracting details. It’s possible, for example, that a young Trinity student from Kerry might refer to her mobile phone as ‘my cell’, but it’s unlikely nonetheless. And while there is no faulting the author’s ambition in his attempt to splice the post-Troubles Irish crime novel to the great literary text of the 20th century, the reader travels more in hope than anticipation that he will succeed.
  That he fails in this regard is perhaps inevitable but there is no denying that even in his failure McKinty has made an strong contribution to the fertile ground that lies between populist genre writing and esoteric literary fiction. Indeed, in the very last line, with his downbeat, tongue-in-cheek homage to Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, it becomes clear that McKinty is self-deprecatingly aware of both the necessity and the impossibility of aspiring to emulate the very best a novel can be: Her throat was hoarse from crying and she couldn’t speak, but her head bobbed the affirmative, and finally, in that husky, tired New York whisper, she said simply: “Yes.”Declan Burke

This review first appeared in the Sunday Business Post

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?” # 2,041: Will Hoyle

Yep, it’s rubber-hose time, folks: a rapid-fire Q&A for those shifty-looking usual suspects ...

What crime novel would you most like to have written?
CAUGHT STEALING by Charlie Huston. Marcus Sakey read some of my work and compared it to Charlie Huston. It took me a little while, but I eventually got around to checking him out. Amazing. CAUGHT STEALING is totally unputdownable. Lucky Number Slevin has a similar plotline, so when I’m watching that, I like to pretend I’m watching CAUGHT STEALING, even if only for a scene or two. Seriously, there should be a movie made from the book, for sure.
What fictional character would you most like to have been?
Tyler Durden from FIGHT CLUB, or One-Punch Mickey from Snatch. I’ve often wondered who would win in a fight. Nihilist guru Brad Pitt or derelict boozer Brad Pitt? I guess I’d end up being whoever won.
Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
I have several books on the IRA and the Catholics of Ulster. Ultimately depressing, but extremely interesting. Sorry to disappoint you ... I know you wanted to hear Nora Roberts or Danielle Steele.
Most satisfying writing moment?
The moment I finished my first book. I didn’t think it could ever be done, especially with the amount of pages I managed to do it in. Nothing to write home about, but for a poet who decided to collect some outlandish thoughts and some moody characters and to luckily tie up all the many loose ends he foolhardily unwound for himself, I was a fox in a hen house. Or a bull in China shop, one or the other.
The best Irish crime novel is …?
HIDDEN RIVER - Adrian McKinty. Strung out Irish ex-cop from Belfast, the Rocky Mountains, a hit squad from the Irish mob, a sexy platinum blond siren as breathless as Norma Jean, and Indian mysticism. What more does a good crime fiction story need?
What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
DEAD I WELL MAY BE by Adrian McKinty. Here’s a shocking secret ... I like McKinty a lot.
Worst / best thing about being a writer?
Being a writer is the absolute best, comparable to being a movie director. Except the movies I’m making form inside my head and I make them come to life on paper. No one will ever see them in the same you light you do. The warm bodies you place into the roles of your characters, the soundtrack you have spinning during your opening and end credits, the directorial tricks that only the recesses of your mind can pull off ... it’s all your creation, yours and yours only. Once you write a few great characters and good strong story around them, I swear, the world could end but you’d always have that book that meant so much to you. No one can take that away.
The pitch for your next book is …?
Dark, pensive. Sad as a Jacobean tragedy but as bloody and gut-wrenching and shockingly brutal as the lingering intermission of a gladiatorial free-for-all.
God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
Well ... all writers have their influences. If I chose to write and no longer read, I’d have my initial style of writing but I’d be forced to add no other spices to it later because I’d no longer have any other gifted writers to inspire me, to fuel my flames. If I chose to read, I could no longer write and therefore this vivid imagination of mine would go to waste. Ultimately, I think I’d go with writing because it’s what I love. A wonderful writer that I took a workshop with told that “writer’s write. That’s it. If they didn’t, they’d go mad.”
The three best words to describe your own writing are …?
Metaphoric. Poetic. Tangenty. I know that’s not really a word, but then again, neither is strategery, and that worked for George Bush the younger. Well, kinda.

Will Hoyle is the author of KILLING THE SWOON, which is currently under consideration with a number of publishers.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


The story so far: Failed author Declan Burke (right), embittered but passably handsome, wakes up one morning to find a stranger in his back garden. The stranger introduces himself as Karlsson, a hospital porter who assists old people who want to die and the hero of a first draft of a novel Burke wrote some five years previously. Now calling himself Billy, he suggests a redraft of the story that includes blowing up the hospital where he works. Intrigued, Burke agrees to a collaboration, but things do not go swimmingly, particularly when it comes to the ‘love letters’ Karlsson has written to his girlfriend, Cassie, in the form of extracts from a novel. Section 1 comes here; Section 2 here. Now read on …

A GONZO NOIR / Declan Burke

Sermo Vulgus: A Novel (Excerpt)

As a young man in Vienna, Hitler failed to woo a Jew.
  A bullet tore his sleeve as he charged across No Man’s Land.
  Cassie, six inches could have saved the Six Million.
  Cassie, they say Hitler once enjoyed the company of Jews.
  How then can they speak so blithely of fate, destiny and procreative sex? Damn the future, Cassie; dam it up. Give me handjobs, blowjobs and anal sex. Offer me your armpits, you wanton fuckers. Let us lacerate the sides of virgins with gaping wounds and fuck so hard we shake God from His heaven. Let us feast on snot, blood, pus and sperm; only save your tears for vinegar, to serve to martyrs who thirst.

‘That’s a love letter?’ Billy says.
  ‘It’s a Karlsson love letter.’
  ‘Doesn’t know much about women, does he?’
  Aileen opens the patio door and pokes her head out. ‘Hey, Hemingway,’ she calls, ‘your daughter’s got a poopy nappy. Chop-chop.’
  ‘Gotta go,’ I say. ‘So what do you want to do with it?’
  ‘I don’t like it as a love letter,’ he says.
  ‘I can kill it if you want.’
  ‘See if you can’t work it in somewhere else,’ he says. ‘Somewhere it doesn’t have anything to do with Cassie.’
  ‘Will do. See you tomorrow.’
  ‘On Saturday?’
  ‘Oh, right. Monday so.’
  ‘Cool,’ he says. ‘I could do with a sleep-in tomorrow anyway. All these early mornings are killing me.’
  ‘Try having a kid,’ I say. ‘You’ll know all about early mornings then.’
  ‘That’d be up to you, really,’ he says, ‘wouldn’t it?’
  ‘You want Cassie to get pregnant?’
  ‘I think it might be good for us.’
  ‘She’s on the pill, though, isn’t she?’
  ‘She is now. Maybe you could swap her pills for folic acid or something.’
  ‘Without letting her know?’
  ‘Sometimes you have to do the wrong thing for the right reason,’ he says. ‘Isn’t that what most stories are about anyway?’

Buddhist monks have this thing going on where they construct amazingly complex mosaics comprised of thousands of precisely delineated sections of coloured dust. It can take years. When they’re finished they sweep the whole thing into a corner and start again.
  I appreciate this perversity while I vacuum the long carpets in the hospital corridors. By the time you reach the far end of the carpet people have trampled all over the point from whence you came. Ashes unto ashes, dust unto dust. The priests say this so as not to scare the horses. It would be more correct to say ashes from ashes, dust from dust.
  It would be even more correct to saying nothing at all and let people decide for themselves.   People bring mud into the hospital on their shoes. They carry in dust, dog-shit, germs, saliva, acid rain, carbon monoxide and blackened chewing gum. But they’re not allowed to smoke in the overflow car park.
  I ask about the possibility of wearing a facemask while I’m vacuuming so I won’t have to inhale the second-hand pestilence of human perambulation. Because I am a porter this is regarded as facetious insubordination. Surgeons wear facemasks. This is for the patient’s benefit, as opposed to that of any surgeon concerned about the invisible dangers wafting up out of a freshly sliced human being.
  A man is standing in the middle of the carpet so I have to vacuum around him. His shoulders are slack. There’s a looseness to his stance that suggests his elastic has stretched a little too far this time.
  ‘Excuse me,’ I say. ‘Could I ask you to move to one side, please?’
  But he turns to face me. His eyes are huge, round and too dry. He says, hoarsely, ‘My daughter just died.’
  ‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ I say. This would be hypocritical if it weren’t true but I find his words offensive. I wonder why people always seem to think their pain is interesting. I wonder why people only share their pain these days. If the guy was standing in the middle of the carpet munching on a bag of toffees it would never occur to him to offer a toffee to the guy vacuuming the carpet.
  ‘She was eight years old,’ he says.
  ‘Think of her as a mosaic,’ I say. ‘Think of your daughter as an amazingly complex mosaic that had become as beautiful as it was possible to be. Imagine that she’s been swept to one side so that she can begin to be formed into another beautiful mosaic. Maybe it’s already started. Go upstairs to the maternity ward, you might even see her smile, that twinkle in her eye. Get there while her new mother is still fretting about how long it should take the maternal bond to kick in and maybe you’ll get lucky. But she might be a boy this time, so think outside the box. And can I ask you to step to one side, please? I’ve had an official warning.’
  He stares at me uncomprehending. Then the huge round eyes begin to water. Tears roll down his pudgy cheeks. He shudders, gasps, and then he seems to fold in half. He bawls.
  ‘Nothing lasts forever,’ I say. ‘These days even agony has a sell-by date.’
  But he’s not listening.

Billy scratches his stubble. ‘Good, yeah. But isn’t there any Cassie stuff coming up soon? People like a bit of romance once in a while.’
  ‘Funny you should mention that.’

Cassie rings and asks me to rent a DVD on the way home. We snuggle up on the couch, sip wine, smoke a joint, watch the movie.
  ‘You know what’s really scary?’ Cassie says. ‘That a shark could take stuff personally.’
  ‘Apart from a wayward meteor,’ I agree, ‘being stalked by a shark is the worst of all possible news.’
  ‘Like, really hating you.’
  ‘See, that’s where Jaws falls down. Sharks are older than hate.’
  She frowns. I say, ‘Hate is unique to mankind, which has been knocking about for roughly a million years. The shark’s been around for four hundred million years.’
  Cassie is stoned and thus intrigued. ‘No shit,’ she says.
  ‘Seriously. And it’s hardly changed in all that time.’
  Cassie digests this. ‘How do they know?’
  ‘Subterranean architecture.’
  ‘There’s actual buildings?’ She’s kidding me on. ‘Like shark museums?’
  ‘The fossil record. Like, the history of the world is a gallery in stone. From the fossil record to the Parthenon’s columns, the perfect maths of the pyramids to the geometry at Cuzco, the molten rock that bubbled up into Etna, the cuneiform etched in the base of pillars – if you want to be remembered, Cass, work with stone. Moses didn’t come down off Sinai with commandments daubed on papyrus.’
  ‘Think of all the great civilisations. They’re cast in stone, their prejudice and their buildings. The Coliseum. The Sphinx. Newgrange. The Acropolis. Angkor Wat. Macchu Picchu. Knossos. Stone upon stone upon stone.’ I say, ‘People think we’ll be remembered for our skyscrapers but really it’ll be for our hospitals.’
  ‘That’s amazing,’ Cassie says, rolling her eyes as she gets up. ‘I’m making a de-caff. Want one?’
  ‘It’s only a matter of time before sharks learn to build bridges,’ I say. But she’s not listening.

‘Better,’ he says. ‘Although it’s not exactly Mills and Boon, is it?’
  ‘Maybe you should write the Cassie stuff,’ I say.
  ‘Really? You wouldn’t mind?’
  ‘Not in the slightest. Go for it.’
  ‘Listen,’ he says, encouraged by my olive branch, ‘I’ve been thinking about the hospital.’
  ‘What about it?’
  ‘Things have got a lot worse since you wrote the first draft. Superbugs, the two-tier health system, all this … They’re misdiagnosing cancer now, you know that?’
  ‘I heard, yeah.’
  ‘Maybe you should come down there, spend a day with me. Just stroll around soaking it up.’
  ‘I don’t want to invade your space, man.’
  ‘Not a problem. We’ll just put you in a corner so you can observe.’
  ‘You’re sure?’
  ‘I think you’d find it really useful.’
  ‘Sound so. Tomorrow morning?’
  ‘I start at ten,’ he says. ‘Get there about nine-thirty, the porters generally have a quick toke before they get into it.’

I stroll past the nurses’ station on the third floor carrying a mop and bucket. The trick is to hide a full dustpan the night before and empty the sweepings into a bucket of water first thing the next day. This is good for an entire morning’s aimless wandering.
  The ward sister calls to me from the station, beckons me across. I put the bucket down with a workmanlike clank and walk over.
  ‘Mr Karlsson,’ she says, ‘would you mind tucking in your shirt?’
  She’s an attractive woman for forty-plus, still working the hair, the eyebrows.
  ‘Mopping’s hot work,’ I say, wiping my dry brow with the back of my hand. ‘This place is like a sauna.’
  ‘I appreciate that,’ she says, ‘but we have to have standards.’
  What she means is, we’re flying on elastic bands and bent paper clips, so don’t give anyone a reason to think about what’s really going on. The rabbit hole lurks in the gap between a belt and an untucked shirt. A straight line exists between a flapping shirt-tail and a class action suit for negligence. An untucked shirt is a hook for the weight of public opinion and crumbling facades can least afford a slovenly dress code.
  I reach around to tuck the shirt tidy. Her eyes flare. She glances up and down the corridor. ‘Not here,’ she hisses. ‘Can’t you go to the bathroom to do it?’
  ‘Sure thing.’
  I walk away. She calls me back and points. ‘The bucket, Karlsson.’
  ‘Oh yeah.’
  This sluices five whole minutes off the map.
  I slouch down the hall to the men’s room, lock the cubicle door, open the window and smoke half a jay. Then I go on the nod. A pounding on the cubicle door awakens me. It’s my supervisor. He sniffs the air suspiciously.
  ‘You were supposed to be up on the fifth floor twenty minutes ago,’ he says. ‘What are you doing here?’
  ‘Orders,’ I say. ‘The ward sister told me to fix my shirt.’
  His eyes narrow. ‘Okay,’ he says. ‘But get up to the fifth floor. You’re late already.’
  No one uses the stairs anymore. People will wait five minutes to take a ten-second elevator ride. So I climb the stairs, untuck my shirt and push through the double doors onto the fifth floor. The ward sister calls me over to the nurses’ station. I put my bucket down with a workmanlike clank and wipe my dry brow with the back of my hand.
  ‘What can I help you with today?’ I say.

‘Well?’ he says?
  We’re in the stairwell between the fourth and fifth floors.
  ‘I don’t remember you being this polite to people in the first draft,’ I say.
  ‘Softly-softly catchee monkey,’ he says, tapping the side of his nose. A door opens above us. ‘We shouldn’t be seen together,’ he whispers, picking up his bucket. ‘Meet me in the car park at five, I’ll give you a lift home.’

Karlsson rode a motorcycle. Billy rides a moped. He reckons it’s easier on gas, more environmentally friendly.
  ‘Don’t I need a helmet?’ I say, climbing on behind him.
  ‘Not until we crash.’ He revs up and we take off but there’s a bottleneck at the parking lot exit, a minor fender-bender damming the flow. There’s a cop trying to direct traffic. My first thought is for my lack of helmet but the cop has better things to do.
  Still, I slip off the moped and stand beside Billy. He could easily wheel the moped past the stalled traffic out onto the road beyond the scene of the accident but neither one of us suggests it.
  ‘The incidence of accidents outside hospitals is five times that of any other public building,’ he says. ‘Anyone who works in a hospital knows to take it slow coming to work.
  ‘Take that guy, the one whose daughter just died. He’s a hazard. Reflexes dull, his peripheral vision full of tiny cherubic faces. All he can think is how he wishes it was him laid out. Except in the back of his mind he’s agonising about how he has to ring his mother-in-law and confess that he never imagined his life could be such a colossal failure.
  ‘This guy,’ he says, ‘he pulls up to the junction here. He edges out, maybe indicating, maybe not, and for a split-second his hand-eye coordination locks into a memory of pushing a swing. He hears the squeals of a child. Squeals of delight segue into a screech of brakes.
  ‘Someone loses a leg. A son loses an eye. A mother gets paralysed from the waist down. A father dies, maybe even the father who was on his way back in to comfort the mother fretting over the unnatural lack of a maternal bond with her new-born daughter.
  ‘Such things,’ Billy says, ‘are spoken of in hushed tones and called tragedies, which is shorthand for entirely avoidable consequences of human fallibility. Such things prompt people to wonder if God really exists.’
  He shrugs. ‘Every cloud has its silver lining.’
  ‘The priests,’ he says, ‘claim that such things are sent to test us. If true, this is a cruelty so pure it verges on the harsh beauty of an Arctic sunset.
  ‘Could any god really be so insecure?’ “Hey folks, your kid is dead – do you still love me?”
  ‘A question like that,’ he says, ‘should cause its asker to spontaneously combust in a shame-fuelled fireball.’ He shakes his head. ‘Except priests deal in shame. They’re emotional pornographers. Priests are elbow-deep in the pus-filled boil of your fear, groping for the maggots they placed there before your birth.
  ‘The concept of Original Sin,’ he says, ‘is evil so pure it verges on genius.’
  ‘Even paedophiles,’ he says, ‘wait until the child has left the womb.’

This morning Cassie is hungover and grouchy. She says she wants us to move on to the next level. I interpret this as laziness. She wants something new but she isn’t prepared to go out and find it. The next best thing is to reinvent yours truly, I, Karlsson.
  ‘Okay,’ I say. ‘But what does that involve? Should I get rid of the motorcycle and buy a car?’
  She shakes her head. She sits on the couch cross-legged, eating Rice Krispies and watching TV.
  ‘I deserve self-actualisation,’ she says. She says this with a single Rice Krispie stuck to her cheek. It bobs up and down as she speaks. ‘Where are we going, K? I mean, where are we really going?’
  Cassie labours under the delusion that all journeys have destinations. This may or may not be a vestigial memory of our evolutionary forebears, nomads to whom the whole world was home. Today, locked into the concept of home as blocks of concrete and glass, we have become emotional nomads. Hence prostitution and soap operas. Hence the next level. Hence the non-specific but irrepressible desire for change. Motion mutates into emotion.
  This is not necessarily a good thing. History is littered with evolutionary cul-de-sacs. An emotionally aware species will lack the ruthlessness necessary to dispense with its old, sick and incapable. It will undermine itself in its efforts to protect those who cannot protect themselves. An emotionally aware species will expend valuable energy keeping the devil away from the hindmost.
  Every civilisation is undone by its own logic. To wit: 9/11.
  Empathy is a carcinogen. Hospitals are interpretive centres along the highway to extinction. I, Karlsson, hospital porter, am a parasite on the underbelly of a carcinogen.
  Cassie watches soap opera repeats while eating breakfast. I watch the Rice Krispie bob up and down on her cheek as she chews and try to think of one person who performs an indispensable function on behalf of the social organism to which we belong. I cannot think of a single person. This means everyone I know is less useful than the average sweat pore. This is not a pleasant thought at six-thirty in the morning.
  Neither is the prospect of change.
  ‘Cassie,’ I say, ‘the Great White shark is so perfectly adapted to its environment that it doesn’t need to change. If we could communicate the concept of hospitals to the Great White, it would laugh, grow legs and invade.’
  Cassie holds the cereal bowl in both hands, tilts back her head and drains the milk. This does not disturb the Rice Krispie stuck to her cheek.
  ‘This is the kind of crap I’m talking about,’ she says. ‘Jesus, K – I need more from life than sharks growing legs. And tuck your fucking shirt in for once, you look like something from the Little Rascals.’
  She flounces out to the kitchen. I don’t mention the Rice Krispie. She will find it herself when she checks the mirror on the way out to work, and she will remove it then. This is as close to self-actualisation as Cassie will ever come.
  My line for today is, Our feminine friends have this in common with Bonaparte, that they think they can succeed where everyone else has failed (Albert Camus / The Fall).

‘More sharks,’ Billy says. ‘And the Rice Krispie thing – I wouldn’t have not mentioned that to her. What if she hadn’t checked the mirror on the way out?’
  ‘Even nuns check the mirror on the way out, Billy.’
  ‘Fair go,’ he says. ‘But listen – the girl’s restless. Why wouldn’t I ask her, y’know, how’d she feel about having a baby?’
  ‘You want to?’
  ‘I think the time is right. It’s just a feeling, but …’
  ‘Leave it with me.’

Tommo says, ‘Kill your babies.’
  To be precise, he croaks this through a lungful of exhaled smoke. Tommo is into the late afternoon leg of a wake-‘n’-bake, horizontal on the couch with the TV muted and the stereo low, the drapes pulled.
  I advance into the apartment until I enter his field of vision. He smiles sloppily. ‘Hey, K. How’s she hanging?’
  He offers a hit. I decline. ‘Word to the wise, Tommo,’ I say. ‘Frankie was looking for you all morning.’
  ‘Kill your Frankies.’
  ‘No, really. He was seriously pissed. He had to watch the monitors himself. There was no relief cover, Austin rang in sick too. Frankie was up and down the stairs all day.’
  ‘Fuck ’im.’
  ‘I’m just letting you know, he was seriously pissed.’
  Tommo frowns. He struggles into a half-sitting position. ‘K,’ he says, ‘who the fuck let you in?’
  ‘Austin.’ I jerk a thumb at Austin, who is sitting in the armchair nearest the TV sucking on a bong. Austin gives us a thumbs-up, then exhales and subsides into the armchair, bong-tube a-dangle.
  ‘Yeah, well,’ Tommo says, ‘now you’re here, shut the fuck up about Frankie. Take a hit or take a hike. But go easy,’ he says, handing me a smouldering joint, ‘it’s pure Thai. You might want to ring in sick for tomorrow before you start. Trust me, it’ll be too much hassle after the first draw.’
  Tommo sounds far too lucid for this to be true but the grass, though smooth going down, causes my brain to pulse like a mushroom cloud. The effect is one of immediate bliss swiftly followed by a stomach-jabbing flash of paranoia. Then a wonderfully mellow sense of complete sensory disorientation.
  Acute dehydration ensues. I go to the kitchen for water. I come back from the kitchen thirsty, having somehow failed to locate either sink or fridge. Austin appears to be comatose in the armchair. Tommo says something about how every language ever invented has been a failed attempt to discover a means of expression by which mankind might communicate the full extent of its ignorance. He says ‘kill your babies’ is a metaphor for eradicating metaphors. He says it’s an irony, rather than a tragedy, that most people experience their lives as metaphors for how they would have preferred their lives to be. He says the real tragedy is that most people already know this.
  Tommo says lots of things but I’m not really listening. Irony isn’t half as clever when you’re thirsty.
  People, you can carve this one in stone: you will seek in vain for irony in the vicinity of a cacti patch.

‘Well?’ I say.
  ‘Yeah, whatever,’ he says. ‘If you think we still need those losers, then okay.’
  I put the m/s down. ‘What’s wrong?’ I say.
  ‘So there’s no reason at all you’ve been grouchy all morning.’
  He takes a cigarette and lights up. ‘It’s Cass,’ he says finally.
  ‘What about her?’
  ‘I brought it up last night, about having a baby.’
  ‘She’s not into it?’
  ‘For one, I’m a hospital porter. She says it’s not the job, it’s the salary, but I don’t know.’
  ‘You want a promotion?’
  ‘It’s not just that. She says she’s not having any babies until she gets married. And she says she’s in no hurry, she’s only 26.’
  ‘Women are having babies later these days, Billy. That’s natural.’
  ‘She’s 31, man. She thinks she’s 26, but she was 26 back when you wrote the first draft. And if she waits another five years, she could be getting into all sorts of complications.’
  ‘Why don’t I just make her 31?’ I say. ‘Get her clock ticking?’
  ‘And wipe five years off her life?’ He shakes his head. ‘What you could do,’ he says, ‘is swap her pill for folic acid, like I said.’
  ‘I told you, I’m not doing that.’
  ‘Why not?’
  ‘It’s immoral. I wouldn’t do it to Aileen, I’m not doing it to Cassie.’
  ‘Hey, you look out for Aileen, I’ll look out for Cassie.’
  ‘And getting her pregnant on the sly – that’s looking out for her?’
  ‘I’m trying to get a life going here, man. The means justify, y’know.’
  ‘Who’m I talking to here?’ I say. ‘Billy or Karlsson?’
  ‘That’s fucking low,’ he says, stubbing out the smoke on the wooden table. ‘That’s bang out of order.’
  ‘You tell Cassie about this conversation,’ I say, ‘and then ask her who she thinks is out of order.’
  He leans in, taking off his tinted shades. I try to ignore the gaping eye socket.
  ‘I only want what’s best for her,’ he says.
  ‘She’s told you what’s best for her.’
  ‘Except she doesn’t have all the information,’ he says.
  ‘So why don’t you tell her?’
  ‘What – that she’s not real?’
  ‘You seem to be coping okay.’
  That one hits him where he lives. He stiffens slightly, then slumps back in the chair. ‘You know what it is?’ he says, a slight sneer brewing. ‘I’m real enough, alright. I’m real enough to you. But you don’t have the imagination to believe in Cassie.’
  ‘Maybe that’s your job,’ I say. ‘I mean, you’re the one who wanted to write the Cassie parts, right? How’s that working out for you?’
  He savours that like it’s fresh-cut lemon. ‘Smug bastard,’ he says, ‘aren’t you?’
  ‘I thought we were cutting out the swearing.’
  ‘If you’re not good enough to do this,’ he says, ‘just say so and stop wasting my time.’
  ‘I’m no Lawrence Durrell,’ I say, ‘but I’m good enough to write you.’
  He nods, then stands up. ‘Maybe I’ll go home and write a story about you,’ he says, ‘fuck around with your life. How’d ya like them apples?’
  ‘I’ll rent a tux,’ I say. ‘The Booker night is always black tie, isn’t it?’

No Billy this morning. A pity, with the garden coming into bloom now, bees humming, the early morning sun lying across the lawn in fat yellow diagonal stripes.

No Billy for three days running now. Maybe he isn’t coming back. Maybe he’s holed up in some garret, feverishly rewriting my life, consulting the story of Moses and Pharaoh for inspiration.
  Is this how God felt when Einstein started doodling in the patents office? No wonder He struck Hawking down.

In brief, the story of Prometheus is this: he stole fire from the gods, gave it to mankind and was eternally tortured for his troubles. Thus he was the first great martyr to intercede with the gods on man’s behalf.
  This simplistic version of events allows us to bask in the smug vanity that has plagued the latter part of our miserable history. That a Titan should defy the gods on our behalf is in itself proof of our exalted status in the universe, or least that part of the universe administered by Titans and gods, although we ignore the inconvenient fact that man was merely a pawn in a deadly game being played by Prometheus and Zeus, and that the gift of fire was simply a spiteful aftershock in the wake of a cosmic civil war.
  A question or two: now that we no longer worship the Greek gods of Olympus, is Prometheus still being tortured? Does the greedy vulture still tear at his liver all day, every day? Does he still freeze every night, chained to the rock, as his liver grows back? Or has his version of eternity come to an end simply because we have forgotten his sacrifice? Has his version of eternity slipped out of our version into another, like a stream draining underground?
  Incidentally, we should probably note in passing that Prometheus was not staked out in sand or subjected to repeated drownings, nor nailed to a tree. He was chained to stone.
  We should also note that, previous to the gift of fire, Prometheus had bestowed on mankind architecture, astronomy, mathematics, navigation, medicine and metallurgy. The smug narcissists who believe that we are the Chosen Ones by virtue of our innate intelligence should bear in mind that we couldn’t even devise a hot spark or two from that little lot.
  Finally, Zeus had his revenge on mankind by dispatching the beautiful Pandora to earth with a jar containing the Spites that might plague mankind: Old Age, Labour, Sickness, Insanity, Vice and Passion. She opened the jar, as we know only too well, freeing the Spites to roam the land, shutting it again just before Hope escaped.
  Thus, or so the story runs, despite everything, even the malevolent intentions of the gods in general and Zeus in particular, man will always have Hope to sustain him. Which would be fine, except that Hope was one of the Spites and her full name was, and remains, Delusive Hope.
  We may no longer believe in Zeus. But Zeus believes in us.

I’m having a quick coffee out in the smoking area of the IFI with my brother, Gavin, our usual post-mortem after the movie screening, when Aileen rings. She sounds as if she’s hyper-ventilating.
  ‘Take a deep breath,’ I say. ‘Slow down.’
  ‘She was in the shed,’ she wails.
  ‘Who, Lily?’
  ‘I had her down on her play-mat doing her stretching exercises when mum rang. But the monitor was there, right there, so I should have heard her moving. But when I went back she was gone. Ohmigod, she was gone.’
  ‘But you found her in the shed,’ I say, the phone trapped between ear and shoulder as I pull my jacket on. ‘She’s okay now. Right?’
  The garden shed is, as most garden sheds tend to be, chock-a-block with sharp blades, poisons and sundry materials unsuitable for consumption by infants.
  ‘She could’ve crawled into the pond, Dec! I asked you to get it covered, didn’t I?’
  ‘Hon? It’s okay. I’m on my way home. I’ll be there in an hour.’
  It’s a very long hour. Lily is a precocious little girl but even she shouldn’t be able to crawl at 12 weeks, and certainly not all the way out to the garden shed.
  The shed, incidentally, is never locked. But the bolt is almost always drawn.
  It’s late evening, two Ponstan and half a bottle of red before Aileen finally calms down. I give her a backrub and take all the blame while plotting an assassination.

‘I thought only Nazis burned books,’ he says, slouching up the gravel path.
  I squirt some more lighter fluid on the m/s.
  ‘Just so you know,’ I say, ‘I never liked Karlsson from the start. That’s why I invented you, so I could stomach a redraft. But I think I like you even less.’
  ‘Boo-hoo,’ he says, sitting down.
  ‘He was only ever an avatar,’ I say, ‘so I could purge all that nasty shit I didn’t like about myself. You haven’t realised yet?’
  ‘Realised what?’
  ‘That I started that story when I met Aileen. I mean, I knew almost immediately she was the one, that if I got my act together we could go the distance. And something somewhere in the back of my head knew that I had to straighten up and fly right, get rid of all the poison, so I wouldn’t infect her or any kids we might have.’
  ‘That’s noble,’ he snickers.
  I flick the Zippo to life, hold it over the m/s. ‘Any last words?’
  ‘The genie’s out of the bottle, man. I’m out there. I’m a fucking virus, airborne.’
  ‘Nice try. But viruses don’t travel that way.’
  ‘Whatever. Burn that,’ he nods at the m/s, ‘and you’re just burning a chrysalis.’
  ‘You’re a butterfly, you’re a virus … Make up your mind.’
  ‘Try this,’ he says. He takes one of my cigarettes, then relieves me of the Zippo and sparks it up. When he exhales he lays the lit Zippo on the m/s. A bluey-yellow flame ignites, fanned by the mild breeze.
  We watch the m/s burn. ‘Oh, what a world, what a world,’ he croons.

  © Declan Burke, 2008

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

It’s A Shortlist, So It Must Be Tana French

It’s been good week for shortlists, nominations and generalised prize-winning flummery amongst the Irish crime fiction fraternity, people. First up is Derek Landy, whose SKULDUGGERY PLEASANT scooped the prestigious Red House Children’s Book Prize at the Hay Festival over the weekend, with The Guardian wibbling thusly:
“The Dublin writer Derek Landy owes much to his zombie detective, Skulduggery Pleasant. First Landy’s creation helped him to leave behind the cauliflower fields of his family farm, and now it has won him the coveted Red House children’s book prize, announced yesterday evening at the Hay festival by some of the children who voted for the book.”
Kids can vote now? Crumbs – next thing you know they’ll be passing laws to stop us sending them up chimneys. Anyhoo, onward to shortlists and nominations, and the ever-radiant Sarah Weinman reports on The Barry Awards. John Connolly’s THE UNQUIET is up for a gong in the Best Novel category, while Tana French’s IN THE WOODS gets a nod for Best First Novel, the latter news causing us to wonder if it’s even legal to have a shortlist that doesn’t feature the Edgar-winning Tana these days. For the full list of nominees, jump over here … The ever-fragrant Bill Crider, meanwhile, features the Anthony Award shortlists, where – quelle surprise – Tana French’s IN THE WOODS has been nominated for Best First Novel, and the Ken Bruen / Jason Starr collaboration SLIDE has been nominated for Best Paperback Original. Again, for the full list of nominees, slide on over here

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Embiggened O # 2,012: That All-Important CSNI Verdict

A Minister for Propaganda Elf writes: “Gerard Brennan is doing terrific work in support of Northern Irish crime writers over at Crime Scene Norn Iron, although it’s fair to say he lowered a tone a tad by taking a gander at the Grand Vizier’s humble offering, THE BIG O. Never one to look a gift horse in the wazoo, the GV hereby reprints the entire review and suggests that you really should take a wander over to CSNI to peruse the delights on offer. Peace, out.”
Declan Burke’s writing has earned recognition and praise from the likes of John Connolly, Ken Bruen and Adrian McKinty, and no doubt it will garner more when The Blue Orange is released by Harcourt in the near future. So I cracked open Declan Burke’s THE BIG O with pretty high expectations. It is, after all, the work of a crime connoisseur. Burke runs the popular Irish crime fiction-focused blog, Crime Always Pays, and knows more than a thing or two about the genre. So has all his virtual rubbing-of-elbows with crime fiction’s elite paid off? In a word, yes.
  In THE BIG O, the cool and sexy Karen meets Ray, a mysterious Morrissey lookalike, while she’s sticking up a convenience store. She invites him for a drink and it’s not long before she finds out that there’s a lot more to this guy with the dodgy fringe than meets the eye. Could be they could work together on a pretty big score. So long as they don’t let a little thing like love get in the way. Unfortunately, Karen’s ex-boyfriend, Rossi, is getting out of jail and he wants his Ducati, his .44 Magnum and his sixty grand back. Things are about to get ... complicated.
  THE BIG O is a furiously-paced crime caper employing a huge cast and shifting character perspective. The novel is chockfull of Hiaasen-esque humour and there’s a distinct lack of 2D bit-players. The plot is great fun, but on a slightly negative note, relies heavily on coincidence. However, as a reader, I enjoyed myself so much that I was more than happy to accept it.
  What struck me most was Burke’s skill at painting very believable female characters. I’m no expert myself, but the bits I read out to my wife met with a nod of approval. You couldn’t say fairer than that, could you? Burke has taken the effort to present us with a female protagonist that isn’t just a perky pair of boobs and a few witty double-entendres. Karen, Madge and Doyle are three very real ladies with very real strengths and ... not exactly weaknesses ... idiosyncrasies, maybe?
  The format makes the book a perfect candidate for newspaper serialisation. Reading it, I was reminded of Bateman’s I PREDICT A RIOT. The story is told in bite-sized chapterettes that are conveniently labelled by the character driving the POV. In the early stages of the novel, this structure makes it a bit difficult to connect with the characters, but twenty-odd pages in, the aul brain gets into the swing of it and the sheer fun of the story and character-development fairly carries you along.
  As a setting, Burke decided to go with Anywhere USA/UK/Ireland, with, in my mind, leanings towards the States. Knowing his penchant for the Irish crime scene I was expecting the novel to be set on the Emerald Isle with all sorts of wittiness smacking of blarney. However, this shrewd move may have contributed towards his securing a US publication deal, so more power to his elbow.
  THE BIG O is a fun-filled and intense joyride that’ll dump you on the kerb way too soon. The humour’s great, but there’s a lot of poignancy too, so don’t sink too far into that sense of security. Burke whips it out from under the reader ruthlessly as he persuades you to feel sorry for the bad guys but shows them no mercy throughout to keep ‘em mean. The dialogue is wicked and the prose slick and stylish. This man’s going to go a long way. – Gerard Brennan

A Gonzo Noir # 2

A Minister for Propaganda Elf writes: The interweb-shaking response to the Grand Vizier’s (right) first post of his internet novel A GONZO NOIR (which amounted to a total of four comments, one of which was the Grand Vizier’s, and counting) has inspired the megalomaniac narcissist to post the second section, which comes below. If you’re one of the six billion or so people who hasn’t read the opening chapter – in which a character from an unpublished novel, a hospital porter called Karlsson, turns up in Declan Burke’s back garden and suggests that the best way to get the novel published is to blow up the hospital where he works – the first section comes here. Now read on …

A GONZO NOIR / Declan Burke

I tell Aileen I’m thinking about having another go at the Karlsson story.
  ‘Who?’ she says.
  I tape Lily’s nappy in place, snap the buttons on her baby-gro. ‘Karlsson, the hospital porter.’
  She frowns, remembering. ‘The guy who killed all the old people?’
  ‘I’m thinking of making it a comedy.’
  ‘Your father’s a space cadet,’ she tells Lily. Lily, warm and dry again, gurgles like a faulty faucet.
  ‘It’s just a redraft,’ I say. ‘Nothing major.’
  ‘I’ll redraft the divorce papers,’ Aileen says. She tickles Lily’s tummy. ‘But don’t worry, it’ll be nothing major.’

The cancer counsellor waves a rolled-up newspaper to shoo us away from the windows so his clients won’t have to watch us smoking. We are their bolted horses.
  I try to make the connection between their cancer and my smoking but it can’t be done.
  Some of my co-smokers drift away around the corner to where a breeze whips beneath the glass corridor connecting the hospital’s old and new buildings. There they huddle together, shivering. It’s a grey December day, sleet spattering the glass. The wind a cruel easterly.
  The cancer counsellor raps on the window, jerks his head and thumb. I flip him the bird. He opens the window and leans out, beckons me across. I stroll over. When I’m close enough he mimes writing down the name on my plastic tag.
  ‘Let me get this straight,’ I say. ‘You’re miming a disciplinary action?’
  This provokes him into taking out a pen and writing my name on the back of his hand. ‘You’re on report, Karlsson.’
  ‘Ingrate. If we didn’t smoke you’d be out of a job.’
  His face reddens. He doesn’t like being reminded of his role as parasite. Not many do. ‘Between you and me,’ I say, ‘stress is the big killer.’
  He’s fuming closing the window. I’m still not making the connection between my smoking and other people’s cancer. There’s a fuzzy blurring of divisions, okay, and carcinogens on either side of the wire. But I’m not finding the tangent point.
  My line for today comes from Henry G. Strauss: I have every sympathy with the American who was so horrified by what he had read of the effects of smoking that he gave up reading.

‘That’s not very different from the first draft,’ Billy says. We’re out on the decking again. It’s another beautiful morning. I’m hoping the good weather holds because I’m not sure I want to invite him inside.
  ‘I think it works,’ I say. ‘I mean, you’re going to have to be at least a wee bit weird, otherwise no one’ll believe you when you decide to blow up the hospital.’
  ‘Fair go. But I don’t know if I should flip him the bird. It’s a bit … gratuitous, don’t you think? Blatant. If it was me I’d be a bit more subtle than that.’
  ‘What would you do?’
  He thinks for a moment, closing his eyes picturing the scene.
  ‘Why don’t I stick out my tongue?’ he says. ‘Blow him a raspberry.’
  ‘You’re supposed to be 28,’ I say. ‘You want everyone to think you’re a retard?’
  ‘It worked for Ignatius Reilly.’
  ‘Look,’ I say, ‘it’s your story we’re rewriting. You need to accept that.’
  ‘Okay,’ he says. ‘But I’d rather blow a raspberry than flip someone the bird.’
  ‘I’ll take it under consideration,’ I say, making a note.
  ‘What’s next?’ he says.
  ‘You shave the skinny guy for his hernia operation.’
  ‘Roll it there, Collette.’

Today I shave a skinny guy, Tiernan, for a hernia procedure. The latex gloves are cold but he doesn’t seem to notice. I believe he’s trying to pretend another man isn’t fiddling around in his groin area.
  Instead he tells me that a friend of his knows someone who died under anesthetic. Tiernan says he doesn’t want to die not knowing he’s dying. What he’s really saying is, he doesn’t want to die. What he’s really saying is, he has no one else to confide in except the guy who shaves other people’s genitals.
  ‘I do shaves,’ I say. ‘I push wheelchairs and lift the heavy stuff when the male nurses are busy. If you want a priest I’ll see what I can do. But it’s only a hernia operation. Catch yourself on.’
  He’s shocked. I swab away the last of the cheap shaving foam. ‘You think you have problems?’ I say. ‘I have to look at dicks all day. Want to swap jobs?’
  He works in a travel agency and spends his day emailing pornography to friends who pretend to appreciate what he understands to be irony.
  ‘You don’t want to die?’ I say. ‘Then do something. If you do something you won’t mind dying so much. Paint a picture. Have a kid. Then let it go. Dying isn’t so different from letting go.’
  But he isn’t listening. He’s back thinking about this guy his friend knew, the one who died without knowing he was dying. I get a bang out of that. If there’s one thing dead people know it’s that they’re dead. If it’s anything like the way the living know they’re alive it won’t be such a big deal.
  He watches me peel off the latex gloves.
  ‘Pay attention,’ I say. ‘You might need to draw on this performance some day. You’d be surprised at how many people learn to live without dignity. Statistically speaking, you’ve every chance of becoming one of those people.’
  The matron arrives. I wonder if they teach bustling at Matron School. She throws back the kid’s robe. Matrons don’t usually check on hernia shaves but I shaved the wrong side a couple of weeks back.
  ‘How are you feeling, Mr Tiernan?’ she says. She says this so we can both pretend she isn’t checking my work.
  ‘I’m parched for a drink,’ the guy says.
  ‘It won’t be long now,’ she says. ‘It’ll soon be over.’
  She speaks without looking in my direction. ‘Karlsson, I’d like you to take Mr Tiernan down to theatre at three forty-five.’
  ‘Let’s hope something funny happens on the way,’ I say. But she’s not listening.

He lounges back in the chair, tapping his lower lip with the butt of a pencil.
  ‘You’re still calling me Karlsson,’ he says.
  ‘Technically speaking,’ I say, ‘it’s the other characters who call you Karlsson.’
  ‘So have them call me Billy.’
  ‘I could do that, yeah. Except if you become Billy you’re not Karlsson anymore.’
  ‘I’m not Karlsson anymore.’
  ‘Not to me, or you. But if other characters start calling you Billy they’ll expect to see someone who looks like Billy. And I’d have to go through the whole damn thing changing your appearance every time its mentioned. Your hair, your eyes, your nose, the way you walk …’
  ‘Are we doing this,’ he says, ‘or are we doing this?’
  ‘Hey,’ I say, ‘no disrespect, but I’m doing you a favour here. Okay? Harcourt are waiting on The Big O sequel, they’re expecting it in October. So that’s my priority. If I can do your story as well, then great. But if we’re going to get it done, we can’t be farting around worrying about every tiny detail.
  ‘What you need to do,’ I say, ‘is think of yourself as an actor. Yeah? Make like the story’s a Mike Leigh movie, or one of those Dogma flicks, and you’re contributing to Karlsson as he goes along, inventing dialogue for him, little tics and quirks. How’s that sound?’
  He takes a while to consider that.
  ‘Okay,’ he says. ‘I’ll give it a whirl.’
  ‘Listen,’ I say, ‘I’m thinking of leaving out the Pope-Camus stuff.’
  ‘What Pope-Camus stuff?’
  ‘The goalkeepers bit.’
  He shakes his head. ‘I forget that one,’ he says. ‘What’d I say there?’

Albert Camus and Pope John Paul II were both goalkeepers in their youth. I like to imagine them at either end of a stadium punting the ball back and forth while hooligans riot on the terraces.
  As former goalies Camus and Pope John Paul II may or may not have sniggered knowingly when they read about James Joyce’s ambition to be both keeper and crucifier of his nation’s conscience.
  They had this much in common once: both were a safe pair of hands under a high cross.
  I was born. Later I learned to read, then write. Since then it’s been mostly books. Books and masturbation.
  Writing and masturbation have in common temporary relief and the illusion of achievement. Many great writers have been avid onanists, and many avid onanists have been great writers. Often the only difference, as a point of refinement, is whether the wanking or writing comes first.
  Me, I write some, I tug some, I go to bed. Only a barbarian would wank first, then write.
  My line for today comes from the Danish novelist, Isak Dinesen: I write a little every day, without hope and without despair.

‘Y’know, I don’t think I should want to be a writer,’ he says. ‘I can see why you had it in there, to suggest Karlsson has some kind of depth. But now …’
  ‘You’ve changed your mind now you’ve met me.’
  I’m joking but he nods. ‘What I’m thinking,’ he says, ‘is that Karlsson wanting to be a writer, to be creative, that’ll clash with him wanting to blow up the hospital.’
  ‘The urge to destroy is also a creative urge,’ I say.
  ‘Hmmmm,’ he says. ‘I’m not sure, if we want people to like me, that I should be throwing out nihilist sound-bites. All that Year Zero stuff doesn’t play too well in the ’burbs.’
  ‘How about this?’ I say. ‘You want to be a writer at the start except all you get are rejection letters. Then you get sour and decide to blow up the hospital.’
  ‘Too narcissistic,’ he says. ‘Only a writer could be that self-absorbed.’
  ‘Blowing up a hospital – that’s not narcissistic?’
  ‘It’s an attention-grabber, sure. But you’re the one who left me so’s I need to do something drastic to get out of this limbo.’
  ‘Leave me out of it. The hospital’s your idea.’
  ‘I didn’t start out like this, man. If you’d have asked me way back when, I’d have told you my dream was to skipper a charter yacht in the Greek islands.’
  ‘Funnily enough, it never occurred to me ask a character what his dream might be.’
  ‘Yeah, and maybe that’s why you’re still trying to cram your writing time into two hours a day.’
  ‘Yeah,’ I mimic his sarcastic tone, ‘and maybe we should forget the whole thing so’s I can get back to actually enjoying what I write.’
  ‘Touché,’ he says, deadpan. He gets up. ‘Let’s take a break,’ he says. ‘We’re obviously not going to get anything constructive done today.’ He takes one of my cigarettes, lights up. ‘One more thing,’ he says, exhaling. ‘You can’t go threatening to pull the plug. You’re either doing this or you’re not, and if you’re not fully committed it isn’t going to work. The start should be the easy bit. If you’re finding it hard going now, it’ll be a nightmare when we get into the endgame.’
  He’s right, but somehow apologising feels like a step too far.
  ‘Listen,’ I say, ‘I won’t be here tomorrow. We’re taking Lily down home to Sligo for a few days to see her grandparents.’
  ‘Sound,’ he says. ‘Want to meet up Saturday night, have a pint?’
  ‘Cheers, but no. We’ve a family dinner arranged.’
  ‘Grand. See you Monday so.’

Aileen is standing at the kitchen window with Lily humped over her shoulder patting the little girl’s back to bring up wind. I hunch down to meet Lily’s gaze but she’s glassy-eyed, blissed out after a long feed.
  ‘Y’know,’ Aileen says, ‘it’s just as well no one can see into the back garden. I’d hate for anyone to think my husband was a mentaller who needs to put in a couple of hours talking to his characters to get set up for the day.’
  ‘Want me to take her?’
  ‘Good timing.’ She hands Lily across, sniffing her as she goes. ‘I think she has nappy issues. And change her baby-gro, will you? I’m meeting the girls in Dundrum for lunch. Put her little kimono outfit on.’
  ‘The white one?’
  ‘No, the pink one. She’s cute in pink.’
  ‘Hey, Boopy-Doop,’ I say, rubbing Lily’s back. She burps up a little creamy sick that dribbles down onto my shoulder. ‘That’s my girl,’ I say.

I met Cassie through a lonely hearts column. What I liked about her advertisement was that she required asoh. Most people specify a good sense of humour but Cassie wasn’t fussed. Laughs are laughs, she said.
  Most people say they are first attracted by a sense of humour, the implication being that physical appearance is of secondary importance because beauty is ephemeral. The assumption here is that a sense of humour cannot age, that humour is immune to wrinkles, withering or contracting a tumour. People presume the things they cannot see – hope, oxygen, God – do not change, grow old or die.
  A sense of humour is like everything else: it serves a particular purpose and then converts into a new form of energy. The trick is to be fluid enough to go with the flow and deal with each new manifestation on its own merits.

‘You might want to scrap the next bit,’ I say. ‘It’s an excerpt from that novel you were supposed to be writing.’
  ‘What’s it like?’ he says.
  ‘How shite?’
  ‘Shite shite.’
  ‘Colour me intrigued. Have on, MacDuff.’

Sermo Vulgus: A Novel (Excerpt)

Cassie, my elbows skate in ungainly loops across the cheap varnish of this plywood desk as I write to unremember. The flat white sponge soaks up the words. Cassie, bury me in a cheaply varnished plywood coffin. Then look beyond the past. Train your eyes to see beyond the horizon of what we used to know all the way back to where our future ends.
  Cassie, we should have danced together, once at least, but you stumbled over words like ‘imaginings’.
  Did I hate you really? Did I choose you for the exaggeration of your form, for the overflow that allowed me wallow in the cosy warmth of incestuous oblivion? Were you really the mother I never had? Withdrawal was always the sweetest relief as I slid out and away to limply drift back to the world.
  Cassie, why did I want you only when you were lost?

‘Dump it,’ he says.
  ‘All that incest stuff, Jesus …’
  ‘I already said, it’s gone.’
  ‘What’s next?’
  ‘You get your first official warning.’

The old new orders were, no smoking inside the hospital. The new new orders are, no smoking on hospital grounds. So the cancer counsellor makes an official complaint. If he had made a verbal complaint I’d have received a verbal warning. An official written complaint results in an official written warning from my supervisor. My supervisor tells me this as he hands over the written warning.
  ‘What about the rain forests?’ I say. ‘Don’t cut down trees for the sake of an official complaint, man. If you have to make an official complaint send me an email, or text it. Or recycle. Just send out the written warning on the back of the last one.’
  ‘There’s procedures,’ he says. He wears a buttoned-up stripy shirt under a v-necked sweater, his hair greasy where it straggles over his collar.
  ‘Get a haircut,’ I say, ‘you look like a sleazy monk. Smarten up, unbutton that top button. Being married is no excuse.’
  I do not say this. What I say is, ‘How about the far end of the overflow car park, the one the cheap bastards use when they don’t want to pay for parking in town?’
  ‘Karlsson, there’s no smoking anywhere on hospital grounds.’
  ‘You can’t even see the hospital from down there.’
  ‘It’s the rule.’
  ‘Look, I can see the logic of no smoking in the hospital but ––’
  ‘Karlsson, if I catch you smoking anywhere on hospital grounds, you’re fired.’
  ‘Okay. So when do we stop the consultants drinking anywhere on hospital grounds? Like, when do we start testing the surgeons’ coffee-flasks when they drive up in the morning?’
  ‘It’s for your own good,’ he says. ‘You’ll live longer.’
  The new ban has nothing to do with my health and everything to do with his. He has a sickness that requires orders to be obeyed. Who am I hurting by smoking in the overflow car park? I’m hurting me, sure, but I’m killing him.
  The priests understand that if you can tell people how to have sex you can tell them to do anything.
  ‘If you can tell someone how they should kill themselves,’ I say, ‘you can tell them to do anything. You’re just hanging around waiting for someone to tell you which window to jump out of.’
  I do not say this.
  ‘You’ve had your warning,’ he says.
  ‘Can I super-size that, with extra threat?’
  But he’s not listening. My line for today comes courtesy of Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE): No excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness.

‘We should probably kill the Aristotle bit,’ he says. ‘I don’t know if people respond all that well to insanity. And the foul language, that should go too.’
  ‘No lunacy,’ I say, making the appropriate notes, ‘and no swearing. Anything else?’
  ‘Just one thing.’ He reaches into his backpack and comes up with a sheet of paper. ‘I took a stab at this last night. Something I remembered about Cassie. Want to try it?’
  ‘Sure, why not?’
  He makes to hand the page across.
  ‘No,’ I say, ‘it’s your stuff, you read it.’
  ‘I don’t have a reading voice,’ he says.
  ‘You want to be more real, don’t you? More authentic.’
  He crosses his eyes, mocking himself, then grins. ‘Okay,’ he says.

Sometimes Cassie sings in her sleep. The words are incomprehensible, the melody non-existent. There are moans, yelps and high-pitched squeals. None of these make sense in themselves. Nor do they make any more sense when heard in sequence. If a straight line exists between the static of the cosmos and a Mozart requiem, between meaningless hiss and perfect design, then Cassie belongs in a choir of whales.
  She might not sing for two months, then sing three times in one week. It might last for five seconds or minutes at a time. Why?
  I have recorded her singing without asking permission. An unforgivable invasion. Except Cassie doesn’t know that she sings. If I tell her, she might never sing again. What then?
  I’ve slowed the tape down, speeded it up, played it in reverse. None of the manipulations yield any semblance of meaning. So far I have eliminated the following possibilities: hymns; pop songs; TV theme tunes; advertising jingles; nursery rhymes.
  All I know is that her singing is not designed to be heard. She is not aware she is singing. It is not even the unselfconscious cries of a baby, because a baby is at least aware that it is crying, and that its inarticulate bawling signifies hunger, wet or pain.
  I wait in darkness for Cassie to sing. In the there and then of my waiting occurs the tangent point where I intersect with the human race, that unique breed aiming out along an arc designed to contradict nature’s irrefutable logic.
  Mostly, though, she sleeps. Usually I’ll watch her but not for long. There are few things as boring as a sleeping woman.

‘Well?’ he says.
  ‘You got the tone right,’ I say. ‘And I like the way you’ve made yourself sound like a tender pervert.’
  ‘You don’t mind?’ he says. ‘Me chipping in now and again, I mean.’
  ‘Not in the slightest. The more you write, the less I have to do.’
  ‘Hey,’ he says, the grin beginning again, ‘wouldn’t it be funny if I ended up writing about how I don’t want to be a writer?’
  ‘Hilarious,’ I say, getting up.
  ‘Where are you going?’
  ‘I have a noon deadline. A theatre review for the Sunday Times.’
  ‘Unless you feel like writing that for me too.’
  He shrugs. ‘How hard could it be?’ he says.

This morning a thick mist rolls down out of the hills. A faint but pervasive drizzle. ‘It’d go through you without a bounce,’ as my father’d say.
  I stand at the upstairs window sipping my coffee and watch Billy read back over something he has written, now and again glancing up at the house.
  Around eight-thirty he leaves, slouching away down the gravel path to the back gate, shoulders hunched against the drizzle.
  Something in the way he walks makes me realise that the extra three inches of height come from lifts he’s had put into his shoes.
  He hasn’t even had a coffee. It was my turn.

The hospital’s chain of command works something like this:
  On the bottom of the pile comes the porter. Above the porter come his supervisor, the nurses, the ward sisters and matrons; interns, consultants and specialists; financial consultants, the Board of Directors, and God.
  All these wondrous creatures, apart from God, need to defecate. Sooner or later, the works gum up. Everyone waits until the porter hoses out the Augean edifice. Then it all starts again.
  I like to call this process ‘Tuesday’.
  Everyone has a thing about Mondays but Mondays do their best.
  Tuesdays are evil.
  Tuesday is Monday’s Mr Hyde, lurking in the shadows and twirling its luxuriant moustache. Tuesdays take Friday 13ths out into the car park and set their feet on fire just to see the fuckers dance. If Tuesday was a continent it would be Africa: disowned, degraded and mean as hell. Tuesdays are in a perpetual state of incipient rebellion. I can feel it. Tuesdays want to be Saturday nights and a few pancakes once a year aren’t going to keep them sweet forever. When it all blows up in your face don’t say you weren’t warned.
  We have chained Tuesdays too tightly, allowed them no time off. We have taken no notice of Tuesday’s concerns over working conditions. Tuesday is Samson, blinded and furious, his hair growing back by imperceptible degrees.
  You have been warned.
  The union rep is on the phone, so it must be Tuesday.
  ‘You got another official warning, Karlsson,’ he says, ‘and one member’s shoddy work practices reflect badly on the entire union. You need to take that on board because we’re all in this together. If enough people share the load it doesn’t weigh anything. You know the cleaning contracts are up for review next month.’
  ‘Aren’t you supposed to be on my side?’ I say. ‘I’m being fucked up the ass, metaphorically speaking. What’s the protocol for shouldering a metaphorical poke in the wazoo?’
  ‘Rules are rules,’ he says.
  ‘There’s such a thing as a bad law,’ I say. ‘Not only is the law an ass, it must be seen to be an ass.’
  But it’s Tuesday and he’s not listening. ‘One more infraction and you’re suspended,’ he says.   ‘One more infraction and I’m fired. Where’s the point in suspending me after I’m fired?’
  ‘Consider yourself disciplined,’ he says. ‘You’ll be receiving official confirmation within three working days.’
  ‘Can I wait until the official confirmation arrives before considering myself disciplined? I have issues with imaginary manifestations of authority.’
  I say, ‘I’m an atheist, send a plague of locusts.’
  But it’s Tuesday. He’s not listening.

‘Again with the foul language,’ he says.
  ‘Duly noted.’
  ‘And there’s maybe a little too much Tuesday stuff. But,’ he adds, ‘that’s just a suggestion. You’re the writer here.’
  ‘No, you might have a point. I’ll take a look at it.’
  ‘Okay. What’s next?’
  ‘Another excerpt from your novel.’
  ‘I thought we were dumping all that.’
  ‘We dumped the last one, sure. But I only realised afterwards that the excerpts were intended as your love letters to Cassie.’
  ‘Oh yeah?’
  ‘What do you want to do?’
  He shrugs. ‘Give it a whirl.’

Sermo Vulgus: A Novel (Excerpt)

As a young man in Vienna, Hitler failed to woo a Jew.
  A bullet tore his sleeve as he charged across No Man’s Land.
  Cassie, six inches could have saved the Six Million.
  Cassie, they say Hitler once enjoyed the company of Jews.
  How then can they speak so blithely of fate, destiny and procreative sex? Damn the future, Cassie; dam it up. Give me handjobs, blowjobs and anal sex. Offer me your armpits, you wanton fuckers. Let us lacerate the sides of virgins with gaping wounds and fuck so hard we shake God from His heaven. Let us feast on snot, blood, pus and sperm; only save your tears for vinegar, to serve to martyrs who thirst.

  © Declan Burke, 2008