Thursday, July 25, 2013

Bloodland, by Alan Glynn

I happened to be reading Bloodland at the same time a blog post came out from the excellent Martin Edwards, addressing the question, How Many Characters in a Novel? Too many characters was actually the main complaint members of my book group had about the last book under discussion here, Creation, by Gore Vidal, a problem I thought could have been ironed out a bit by a simple list of characters at the beginning to refer back to. Edwards is talking specifically from the point of view of mystery writer, though, and this has some bearing on Bloodland, which I would call a mystery in the broader sense, though I have seen others refer to it as a classic conspiracy novel.

I suspect that in today's reading climate, where everything possible must apparently be done to keep the reader from giving up and turning on the television or  some other device, the opening of Bloodland will be off putting for some. After an initial scene in Africa, you have three more starts to the book, all involving dyads or triads of men. I'm pretty game  to try complex openings, but even I had some worry whether I was going to be able to keep track of all the players--Ray and Jimmy and Phil and Larry and Dave. You get the picture. And then about forty pages in another group of men are introduced.

I bring this up only to say, don't be put off by this. You'll figure it out. Everything's connected--which is also a theme of the book as a whole. And the men, as you get to know them, are distinct characters.  You won't confuse them.

The basic idea of the story is that Jimmy Gilroy, a talented but unemployed young reporter who's lost his job in the moribund newspaper industry, has landed a little gig writing a combination bio and exposé of a scandal ridden celebrity, including her tragic death in a helicopter crash. Unwittingly, by taking the assignment, he has just pulled the small thread by which a very large web is going to unravel. His first glimpse of this result is when he's called by Phil Sweeney, an old friend of his dad, who asks that he back off the "last days" angle of the story. Instead of seeing this as a favor he owes the older man, Jimmy is offended and hangs up. This action is what sets the plot--or perhaps I should say plots--in motion.

Bloodland is extremely ambitious in scope, which is why we need not just one protagonist but many as it unfolds. Glynn adeptly connects American and Chinese depredations in the Congo to the crash of the Irish housing market, celebrity scandal and presidential ambitions. What has perhaps not been noted enough is that it is also a meditation on fathers and sons. At least two of the main characters are father haunted, and while the fathers may be gone, the friends of the fathers remain, trying to steer the course of the future through these adoptive ties to the sons.

For a failed reporter, Jimmy is perhaps a little too lucky as the story unfolds, and I wasn't entirely convinced that as he finds his way through the labyrinth of collusion and deceit the very powerful men he confronts would have been quite so panicked as they prove in response to his investigations.

Though it's true--they do have some very big things to hide...  

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