Saturday, June 11, 2016

Review: Bust

Bust Bust by Ken Bruen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I was reading (and enjoying this) I found myself thinking about the parallels between hardboiled/noir fiction and the sonnet. Each is a form that implies a subject: sonnets are fourteen lines of metered verse, and they’re usually about love, requited or otherwise. Noir is a short novel with clipped sentences, and it’s usually about murder, sex, and betrayal, There are great exceptions in either case (think of Auden’s sonnets or James Ellroy’s noir) but part of what makes each great is that the “rules” are so formalized. As writers and readers we enter into an implicit contract: surprise us by giving us just what we expect.

In that light, Bruen – or maybe Bruen and Starr since this is my first Starr – are flat-out pros. Maybe they aren’t Shakespeares of the form (that would be Hammett and Chandler in this metaphor, I suppose) but they’re awfully good. They make it seem easy and they make it seem fresh. Yet I know as both a reader and a writer that it’s tough to pull this off.

Some of the reviews tout Bruen’s humor, and I think that’s fair. There is a dark humor here, a skilled laughing at the absurdities of the dark side of life. Consider this line from late in the book, “If he’d just had a thing for flat-chested women, none of this would have happened.” Or this one. “Who said money couldn’t buy happiness? Some dumb bastard who bought discount, probably.” Those are great lines, but they’re not simply punch lines. They’re earned as insight into the characters who utter them. In other words, there’s a lot to laugh at here, but the laughs come after the fundamental human comedy: we’re programmed to do stupid things

I could point out that most of the characters here are clich├ęs: the fiery Irish femme fatale, the paunchy and horny middle-aged businessman, the off-his-rocker IRA assassin, even the bitter U.S. army vet (who happens to be wheelchair bound). But if I do point that out, it’s not in complaint; it’s in admiration. We’ve seen these pieces of the puzzle before – we’ve heard voices like this one before – but there’s still something new in the way they come together here.

The novel is part of a tradition, and it revels in that. Each chapter has a quote to start off, a tip of the battered cap to classic noir, to a friend’s work, or to the authors’ own. It knows it isn’t doing entirely original, but that’s the point. You don’t expect originality in a sonnet either; you expect instead a variation on an established theme. You don’t get it all that often, so celebrate it when you do.

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