Friday, July 1, 2016

Review: The Guards

The Guards The Guards by Ken Bruen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I believe that Hemingway is the grandfather of all real hardboiled work. It’s not just a matter of his creating the hardboiled hero, the guy who soldiers on despite his sense that the world no longer matches the order he was promised. It’s also about his inventing the prosody, the poetry really, of the hardboiled language. He taught us how to boil away the excess, how to cut away everything but the bone from a story.

Bruen’s novel is so close to the bone, so taut, that it’s as much poetry as prose. Sure it’s hardboiled in its characterization of Jack Taylor and his Galway world, but, as much as accomplishment as that is, it’s the least of what’s going on. I could characterize the story, but why bother? The real joy here is in the language. Throughout, Bruen seems to be asking how many words you can cut away and still let the heartbeat underneath ring clear.

There’s nothing sentimental in Jack Taylor. He battles nostalgia for the father he loved and admired, and he’s unapologetic about admiring books and good writing, but he never thinks of the past as better than what he sees now, and he never thinks of himself as better than others. He knows he’s a fallen, bitter man. He doesn’t think he deserves much and, given that he has so little, his world seems about right.

And then, somehow, the book is deeply funny as well. I’ve seen Bruen praised elsewhere for his humor, but I get it here better than anywhere else. You can laugh at the world, but that laughter is not ultimately reassuring. Instead, it’s all you have left when the comforting truths die: the world may not play fair, but the compensation for that God-is-dead condition is a lot of absurd contradictions.

One of my favorite of those is his claim that “Fuckit” is “the short version of the Serenity Prayer.”

Another comes when Jack recounts his childhood discovery that he’d learned to read. When a bus drove past, he read the word “Paddy” on an ad on the side. “[My father] was delighted. Not only because it was the first word I spelt but it was his name. A more cynical view is my first word happened to be the Irish whiskey.”

Bruen really nails this one; it’s my favorite of his so far. I’m disappointed (as I often am) that this is the first in a series because I doubt he can catch such lightning in the next bottle. That said, this one is so well done, it sings in such a low, laconic tone, that I’ve already ordered the next one up.

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