Sunday, March 30, 2014

Priest, by Ken Bruen

 It's not always easy to review a book that's midway through a series. Priest is the fifth book in the excellent Jack Taylor series, and for once I read the books in order and advise you to also. As Priest opens, Jack is in a pretty dark place for reasons I won't divulge here. Suffice to say that he could well be the mascot for Beckett's famous line "I can't go on, I'll go on." Well, if he didn't go on, we wouldn't have a book, would we? But lesser men might have failed at this juncture.

It would be interesting for me to know what the majority of Americans think who read Bruen's novels. I've been to Galway, and I have to confess that I didn't encounter any of the dark heart of Ireland while I was there. But of course that means nothing--I was a tourist. It was perfectly easy for me to avoid the underworld of Bangkok when I visited as well. More than the crimes that form the plots of the Jack Taylor novels, though, it's the exposure of the darker side of the Irish psyche that I wonder what Americans will make of. Although Ken Bruen himself has a good bit of the famous Irish charm, his novels don't seem to play to Irish-American expectations of the Old Sod. The Magdalen Martyrs dealt with the notorious Magdalen Laundries scandal, and this fifth book doesn't tread lightly when it comes to abuse by priests of young boys. I don't give too much away to say that it pretty much starts with a priest's beheading.

But apart from these large issues, it's really more the Irish character that Bruen is so good at dissecting and skewering. He doesn't shy away from subjects like Irish alcoholism or the abuse of power by Catholicism in a country where the church and state are more firmly wedded than they ever were in ours.And yet Bruen writes as an insider to the culture, not as an anthropologist. And he still has a bit of respect for the old Galway as opposed to its modern manifestation for all that.

As always literature, figures into Jack Taylor's life, but this round he's at a place where books fail to sustain him. Nevertheless, the chapters often start out with short quotes from the one book that's attracted him, Pascal's Pensées, a memoir that I never thought I'd read, anymore than Jack Taylor thought he would (although I can't speak for Bruen himself here.) But as is often the case with  classics you haven't read, the book appears to be a stranger creature than I took it for, darker about humankind and its journey than I would have thought. I have a feeling I'm going to have to read it.

I've thought off and on about why Taylor is such a charismatic character, not just for his fellow characters (and love or hate him, none of them seem to be able to leave him alone), but for us. But Bruen himself  answered the question for me in this one. Early on, he has Jack say:

"Soren Kierkegaard talked about man's condition being caught between insoluble tensions.

Fucker nailed me."

It isn't I admit, a very California kind of attitude, but the longer I live, the more I see how this must be so, and Jack is the character who knows this within his bones. His integrity, what he has of it, comes from this knowledge. He can be cruel, destructive to people who might not have earned such brutality, but he'll give money to the alcoholic beggar on Eyre Square, or any of a number of other sad sacks that you know are never going to make good either.

He isn't, however, on the evidence of these last couple of books, someone it would be wise to become close friends with.

Here's an interesting article on Bruen that I ran across when I was looking for an image of the book.

You could do worse, too, than to check out the Jack Taylor television series, which is available on Netflix. The stories so far are close to but not quite the same as the books, and Taylor on the show is not as dark a character as the one Bruen wrote. But there is something in the show that remains true to the spirit of the books, and for that I'll keep watching them. Recently, I watched a writer's conference on the web where Bruen talked of being tapped on the shoulder as he walked down the street in Galway and turning around to find a man who said, "Hi, I'm Jack Taylor." The actor was there on location as they shot the show, large as life, in Taylor's disreputable old garda coat and all.

For an author, it must have been quite a moment.


  1. Priest is my favorite among the Jack Taylor novels I've read. I recall reading somewhere that it's not Ken Bruen's favorite. I seem to remember his writing or telling an interviewer that the novel was as long as it was only because an editor had insisted on the length.

    I found the book a moving experience, and I liked the jokes. Among the ones I cited in my discussion of the book:

    "A looker, with long auburn hair, she had all the confidence of the new Ireland, 100 percent assurance and little ability."

  2. Yes, that's a great line, but I would venture that there a lot more. I am too lazy to dig them up right now, but there are a lot of zingers.

    My sister who does Irish dancing told me that she heard one Irish woman say, oh, if you were put off by the swagger a few years ago, don't worry, they want you back now, all right.

    Not that that's anything peculiar to the Irish.

    I couldn't pick a favorite of the Jack Taylor books. If I didn't have other commitments, I would have read them all at one go. It's just as well that I didn't, as I now have a few to look forward to.

  3. That was a nice piece of wit on the Irish woman's part. My brief trips to Ireland have done nothing to dissuade me from the common belief that Irish people are good talkers.

  4. Yes, they are. I didn't really grow up with my dad's half of the family, but when we'd go back to visit, it was always quite evident that the oral tradition had survived the American transplanting.