Friday 17 October 2008

A Wee Review - American Skin by Ken Bruen

Ken Bruen is the Galway man behind the Jack Taylor series and the Inspector Brant novels. He’s also written a fair clatter of standalones. American Skin is one of those. As well as being a dark and action-packed crime novel, this book takes a look at the longstanding fascination the Irish hold for America. Pop culture references abound, from Homer Simpson to Tony Soprano, and help sculpt the landscape of the setting.

Stephen Blake is on the run after a bank heist gone wrong in his native Ireland. He’s left behind his home, his life and his love, but sees this as a temporary situation. In time, he’ll make a life and home in America, with his lover Siobhan; just as soon as the swag from the heist is freshly laundered and he hooks up with his girl in Tucson. But, grief for his best friend, who died in the heist, acts as a catalyst to Blake’s spiralling loss of control. And the third crewmember from the robbery, psycho ex-IRA man Stapleton, is after more than his fair share of the loot. Add to the situation two American-grown loose cannons in the form of homicidal maniacs Dade and Sherry, and you’ve got a real stunner of a storyline on your hands.

Blake’s quest to don an ‘American Skin’ includes cultivating a new accent, outlook and image. At times it looks like he’s going to achieve his transformation, and on more than one occasion he makes some true-blue American blunders; one of them on a trip to Vegas – now that’s the American way. But at all the wrong moments, his Irish core shines through. His efforts make for a fascinating character journey. And already I’ve touched on the main strength of this book. Characterisation.

In this relatively short novel, we meet a large cast. And right down to the bittiest of bit-players, we find depth of character. The shifting perspective he employs in this book allows us a glimpse inside each main character’s mind. They all have a fully formed past that has contributed to their present states, and in the majority of cases, the present state is not a stable one. As the protagonist, Blake is the best of a bad bunch, but he’s certainly no angel. He has a shady past and a fatal propensity for poor decision making. In Hollywood, characters often forgo a ‘redemptive arc’. Blake’s journey is more of a damning zigzag.

And then there’s Bruen’s prose. He writes in a pared-down and straight-forward manner, and yet, he somehow manages to pack at least one killer line into every page. It’s the kind of writing that should make you want to howl from the rooftops, bark at the moon and speak in tongues. As a writer, I feel I should be blinded by envy, but the avid reader in me won’t allow it. American Skin is so much of a pleasure to read that the jealous writer in me is sedated and the awestruck reader elated.

God damn you and bless you, Ken Bruen.


Michael Stone said...

"He writes in a pared-down and straight-forward manner, and yet, he somehow manages to pack at least one killer line into every page."

That's a lot harder to pull off than people realise. Ken Bruen is a gifted chap.

Gerard Brennan said...

Too true, mate. When it looks effortless it's usually due to a tonne of effort!