Saturday, January 10, 2015

Noir in Ireland—The Guards

Ken Bruen, in THE GUARDS, creates a character in Patrick Taylor so real I could sense his very presence as I read. In fact, I know real people less solidly authentic than Patrick Taylor.

Taylor is an ex-guard (cop, in the American idiom) from Galway who segues from the force into drinking and works as a kind of private investigator. The Irish are ambivalent about the “Garda.” In fact, Bruen tells us, there is an old Irish saying: “if you want help, call the guards. If you don’t want help, call the guards.” The people of the auld sod are not too keen on PI’s, either. Taylor tells us that during the Troubles, the hatred that developed for informers was so intense and long lasting that private investigators, with their job of uncovering secrets, are still painted with the same hateful brush.

Bruen has the classic insubordination problem all hard types do, perhaps especially the Irish. The tone of the book is set early on when Taylor, still a guard, pulls over a well-connected speeder in spite of being warned not to. The arrogant s.o.b. taunts Taylor with the words “do you know what is going to happen now?” Taylor says he does, and then punches his tormentor in the mouth.

I can’t help but think that some of Taylor’s attitude comes from having been under the thumb of both the British and the Catholic Church. When a friend of Taylor’s dear old Ma (who takes a close second to a murderer of young girls as the most unattractive character in the book), a priest, calls Taylor irreverent, Taylor responds, “No, I’m not. I’m just not reverent about the same things that you are.” I loved that one. And while I’m at it, here’s another: “There’s God and there’s the Irish version. Not that he doesn’t take an interest, but he couldn’t be bothered.”

Taylor can be seen as a kind of Irish clichĂ©, if you don’t listen closely to what he says and does. Yes, he’s a brilliant, lyrical, and sometimes self-pitying, drunk. But he is also a voracious reader, a kind of philosopher, and he has a love for his friends that seems to come out of nowhere to surprise him into acts of great kindness, and even acts of great violence. The most impressive thing about Taylor to me, an unusual thing in any human being, is the level of self-awareness he possesses, even in the depths of his alcoholism. He knows he is a self-pitying and self-destructive fool, and he knows that the booze parades as the cure when it is, at the least, one of the causes of all his troubles.

Bruen is an absolute master of an idiom all his own, even though it has its roots in American crime novels (which the character constantly reads and references, along with poetry and philosophy), and he has a kind of perverse and grand persistence about him in the face of all that Irish corruption, violence and poverty that is truly astounding. He loses large chunks of time due to beatings and blackouts, but after the fashion of a classic Irish fighter, he never takes a backward step.

Early on in the novel, a woman named Ann Henderson (a client with whom Taylor starts a relationship, knowing it is a bad idea, but like with punching cops, he says what the hell, and a woman to whom he foretells his sabotaging of said relationship) asks him to help prove her daughter Sarah was not a suicide.

Taylor quickly discovers that Sarah was killed, partly through reading her diary, an experience that the surprisingly sensitive Taylor finds very painful. I don’t know how Bruen channels teenage-girl prose, but he does. Taylor’s reaction makes you think all his drinking and wisecracking stems from how painful he finds the world sober and quiet. He fears the depth of both his empathy and his sadness.

A wealthy businessman has killed Sarah, and the Guards (including Taylor’s old partner, now a fat and vicious and complacent Lieutenant) are protecting him. The book is not about a search for a brilliant and elusive killer, however. The killer Taylor is going to bring to justice is a perverse and somewhat pitiful one. Taylor, for all his endurance, is not a mastermind in all this. Most of the detecting is done by a computer savvy friend of his who finds the links between all the players on-line. In fact, all Taylor really does is manage to piss people off with all his questions. And get beaten and stone-drunk.

The mystery of what happened to Sarah is not at the center of the novel. The novel is about friendship and the hope for redemption, and the quest to find something meaningful to do and say in a meaningless world. Taylor and his drinking buddy Sutton confront one of the wealthy guy’s underlings, who admits what is going on and taunts the two of them that they will never bring him or his boss to justice. Taylor hits the man, who falls and hits his head on a coffee table and dies. Taylor is remorseful, but Sutton is electrified by the whole thing, so much so that Sutton goes out and almost burns to death a punk who has been going about lighting winos on fire.

If Sutton is the devil on Taylor’s shoulder, Taylor’s bartender Sean is the angel. He doesn’t push Taylor towards sobriety, but when Taylor indicates he would like to know which direction it is in, Sean is eager to point the way. Sean can see that Sutton is a bad actor, and even Taylor sees it after he is forced into detox (he is sent there towards the latter end of a blackout in which he and Sutton took part in some mysterious mayhem and which Taylor comes out of with an uncharacteristically full wallet) but whether Taylor will reject Sutton and the booze is never certain.

When Sean is run down in the street, the wheels come off for Taylor, and in a big way. He goes on a great binge, loses Ann, misses Sean’s funeral, and wins a huge bet he placed on a long shot. He spends a lot of the money on the people he has betrayed, drunkenly attempting to make amends for things he did while drunk, and is going to go to England when he finds out who killed Sean. I won’t spoil it by telling you who it was, or how Taylor deals with it, but like his plan to go to England, whether what he does redeems him or makes him worse is open to interpretation.

I applaud Bruen’s courage in creating a morally ambiguous hero, and one who is painfully aware of how compromised he is.

Bruen is doing more here than creating a great character—he does great things with the English language. Ironically Bruen, even as he uses English with such precision, uses Taylor to speak out for Gaelic, which Taylor calls Irish. Taylor tells how as a child he originally learned the Lord’s Prayer in Irish, and then had to re-learn it in English: “I never could get over the feeling I was safer in Irish.” Taylor longs for that lost childhood like only an Irishman can, turning a musing on the vinegar smell of fish and chips into something poetic: “It smells like the childhood you never had.” And in Bruen/Taylor’s language is the Irish sense of irony, too: “I dunno I was delighted or jealous, both probably, feeding off each other in the Irish fashion.” And finally, the sense of humor—when a true believer tells him that a storm is coming, Taylor asks “are you being Biblical or informative?”

It’s all great stuff, and I can’t wait to read another Patrick Taylor novel.

© 2015 Mike Welch

1 comment:

  1. Jack Taylor is one of my favorite characters. A pint of Guiness, 2 xanax and he's good for the day.