A Fifth of Bruen: Early Fiction of Ken Bruen (2006)
I spent the past few days savoring this omnibus of four short novels and two collections of short stories dating from 1991 to 1994. These are the rare volumes that Bruen would sell by hand in the bars of Galway. Bruen's writing -- deeply poetic, deeply painful, and deeply disturbing -- is to noir as Garfield the cat is to a raging beast; there are very few happy endings and even fewer undamaged souls...but the writing is glorious.
The characters in these books are set upon by their culture, their economy, their religion, their drinking, and their own character. Nobody gets off easy in a Bruen story. Along the way, we see Bruen's trademarks: a love of books and poetry and music, the influence of America, a Celtic tiger neutered and yet dangerous, fathers who distance themselves by violence and by drink, a church that uses arrogance and oppression, lists of everything under the sun, and quotations from writers great and small.
Briefly then, the books:
Funeral : Tales of Irish Morbidities is about Dillon, an alcoholic who works as a store security guard with an obsession with going to funerals. Stephen Beck, "thirty-eight and going on dead," desperately wants to reunite with his youing daughter, whom his ex-wife has taken with her in Martyrs; the drink is getting to him: he's having visions and his rage is tempered only by violence. Ford, the protagonist of Shades of Grace, finds himself in a sham of a marriage to the sister of his boss; his one hope for redemption lies in an American woman named Grace. Sherry and Other Stories is a misnomer: most of these are brief sketches, many without an ending. The one true story in the collection is "Priest," about (naturally) a priest, young and arrogant and whose church is being desecrated. Danny, in All the Old Songs and Nothing to Fear, has lost his wife and young daughter to an underage driver on a joyride. He decides to eliminate the city of punks. Finally, The Time of Serena-May & Upon the Third Cross collects two major stories.
Bruen did not write these books as much as he bleed them. They are not to everyone's taste, but if you like sharp observation, writing that sparkles, and realistic characters, you should give them a try.
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