Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Magdalen Martyrs, by Ken Bruen

I see that it's been far too long since my last reading of a Jack Taylor novel, but don't take that as a mark against these terrific books. You could make a case for just sitting down and reading all the Taylor books in one go, as they are really just the picaresque adventures of one ne'er-do-well Irish ex-garda (or cop, if you haven't heard the word). A case could be made for a sidekick in the form of his garda coat, which he refuses to return. But though I don't show restraint in all that many things, I do tend to pace myself a bit with authors I like, as I don't like the idea of running out of their books before they can write more.

Bruen's vision may be a little bleak for some. I'm sure that many Americans have had an experience of Galway, the setting for the novels, that was not much like this one. It's a nice city for tourists. When I was there, we stayed in a castle, visited a few of the city's many bookstores, heard some trad music and watched the street performers. All that. However, unlike Colin Dexter's vision of Inspector Morse's Oxford, which has fictionally wreaked havoc on what is by all accounts a pretty peaceful town in reality, I feel fairly certain that Bruen's vision of Galway and by extension Ireland itself is a real one. Not the only one, but a real one. The Magdalene Laundries with their institutionalized abuse of "wayward" young women and which this book takes its title and elements of its plot from, were real. Jack Taylor's hatred of priests (except for one surprisingly sympathetic one he meets in this book) is not just an odd character quirk but based on a culture where Catholicism held unchallenged sway for far too long. (And that's not meant as a jab at Catholicism per se, though it is a jab at unmitigated power wherever it's found.)

I should mention that these books are funny, though funny in the way that jokes were funny in, say, Czechoslovakia before the Velvet Revolution. If you can't take your humor a little dark, then this is not the author for you. And it's not so much about jokes, as the way Taylor (and presumably Bruen) observes life.

The thing that most stands out for me with the Jack Taylor books is that Jack, though an alcoholic, a druggie, a failed cop and in some ways, a failed everything is still first and foremost a reader. I think there are few portraits of the reader as such that are rendered so convincingly. Taylor finds his way through life by the light of books, and if you think that's meant as some sort of moral prescription for the reading of books, you'd be wrong. Books don't make Taylor a better person. They are simply one of his strategies for survival.

As a reader, rarely will you find a fictional work that opens so many doors to other books. In fact, the case is usually with fiction that the author pretends that all these other rooms don't exist. With Bruen's books, you feel like you could quite easily wander off into the world of Thomas Merton or George Pelecanos or Dennis Lehane, all of whom have chapter heading quotes (and I have to wonder, does Bruen match the quote to the story or the story to the quote or what exactly?) and never get lost, because you would still be exploring the same vast literary house.  

Long may these rooms and passages connect.


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