Headstone by Ken Bruen
Let me tell you about my friend George. Do you remember Joe Btfsplk? The L'il Abner character who led a jinxed life? Wherever Joe went there was a black storm cloud floating above his head. Well, that's George. George was a very handy friend because no matter what bad things were going on in my life, things were worse for George. If I had a problem at work, George was fired. If I was cursing some difficult home repair project, George's house would burn down. If my wife and I had a minor argument, George's wife would kick him out of the house. George was my barometer, my lock on reality, my itcouldbeworselookatGeorge guy. Finally, one day when I was feeling ill, George died, one-upping me to the very end.
One thing about Jack Taylor, the protagonist of Ken Bruen's most popular series, you know his life is far worse that yours. Jack Taylor is my friend George to the fourth power. In his most previous outing Jack had to deal with the devil (the only touch of fantasy in this long-running, gritty series) and what small victories he had came at a cost. I felt it couldn't get much worse for Jack; then I read Headstone.
Headstone is the name a small group of psychopaths had given themselves. Their mission, to violently rid Dublin of defectives -- the mentally retarded, the acoholics, the druggies, the gays and lesbians, basically anyone they felt like targeting. Among the targets were the priest Malachi, who bitterly hates Jack, and Ridge, the lesbian Garda who has an uneasy relationship with Jack. Other targets are Jack's friend Stuart and Jack himself.
Meanwhile, Jack spirals downward as old deeds come back to haunt him. Jack continues to try to redeem himself but his efforts make him complicit in even worse events. Jack has had beatings before, leaving him lame and partially deaf, but now Headstone has left him maimed and bleeding. Headstone is also responsible for removing the only chance at happiness that Jack has had in years. Before the novel ends, Headstone is about to commit the most horrendous slaughter that Jack could imagine and attempting to stop them could cost Jack his life.
At his core, Jack is a noble person, but his life is riddled with the corpses of those who were dear to him, often as a result of Jack's actions. Taylor's Ireland is infused with despair and corruption with drink, drugs, and violence often the only release available. Taylor wanders through it all, Job-like, and the reader can only hope that eventually he will find redemption -- but redemption is a hopeless goal.
Bruen's prose sings and soars above the morally bankrupt background of the story. At times both lyrical and desperate, Headstone is one more coup for one of Ireland's best writers. Pure genius.