Columns > Published on October 30th, 2013

Why The F*ck Aren't You Reading Ken Bruen?

Image via Magnet Magazine

Why The F*ck Aren't You Reading? is a feature where the columnist spotlights a writer who has a dedicated following and is well known within the writing community, but hasn't achieved the elephant-in-the-room style success of a Stephen King or Gillian Flynn—But they deserve to, dammit! Hopefully the column will help gain the author featured a few more well deserved readers.

There are three writers who I simply can't read when I'm writing a lot of fiction. Writers whose voices are so strong and distinct that they go beyond influencing my writing and completely invade it and take over my own voice. The three writers are:

James Ellroy
Raymond Carver
Ken Bruen

This is particularly true of Bruen. The bluntly poetic cadence of his writing, his self-destructive characters, the unsparing violence,
and, of course,
writing everything
in stanza like lists,
and short, muscular
declarative sentences. 

Such as:

When I read Ken Bruen, my own prose style is fucked. Utterly fucked.

But Bruen's style is addictive to say the least, and along with John Connolly and Adrian McKinty, he helped bring about a wave of innovative Irish crime writers in the 2000's that has yet to crest.

The Skinny aka Just The Facts and Nothing But The Facts

Ken Bruen was born in Galway, Ireland (where he currently resides), and was educated at Gormanston College, County Meath, and later at Trinity College Dublin, where he earned a Ph.D. in metaphysics. He spent 25 years working abroad as an English teacher with stints in Africa, Japan, S.E. Asia and South America. Bruen is the author of over 30 novels, including the popular Jack Taylor series (which was adapted into a television series by  TV3) and the Brant and Roberts series (The fourth novel in the series, Blitz, was adapted into a film staring Jason Statham and Paddy Constantine).

The Work aka Why You Should Be Reading This Guy

A) The lists
B) The prose poetry
C) The declarative sentences
D) The self-destructive characters
E) The unrepentant violence
F) All of the above

The correct answer is F, but you guessed that already, didn't you? As odd as Bruen’s style seems (particularly in the context of an abstract, semi-critical essay), it works completely and manages to suck the reader in through its simplicity; through its rhythmic structure, and the overall vulnerability of Bruen’s characters. Yes, Bruen’s characters are reprobates of the worst kind. They’re masochistic, bent on their own undoing via drugs, booze, violence, sex—more often than not, combined into a voluble noir sandwich. The best example of which is Bruen’s hallmark character, the doomed Galway P.I., Jack Taylor.

Taylor is much like most well-known characters within the private investigator genre. He is haunted, emotionally and physically wounded, and unable to walk away from his profession no matter how terrifying and crippling it may be to his abused psyche. Over the course of the 10 novels in the Taylor series, virtually every human terror has been visited upon him. He’s been beaten, shot, tortured, has had fingers cut off, his teeth kicked in. His friends and loved ones have been killed or have completely abandoned him because of the self-destructive aura which surrounds him. And Taylor slogs through it all, burying his troubles under gallons of Jameson and Guinness; under pounds of coke and Xanax.

And yet, as de-humanized as Taylor becomes, he persists with an odd sort of optimism, convincing himself that life will be better once he stops drinking, smoking, and delivering himself into the hands of oblivion. But you know none of this will ever happen. You know that it is too late for Taylor to ever be redeemed for his sins, because he wears them all too comfortably; because without the guilt of his past transgressions and the dozens of lives he’s left in ruins, perhaps Jack Taylor will simply cease to exist, because he just doesn’t do happiness.

Where To Start aka What Book Should I Read First, Smart Guy?

There are two schools of thought when comes to where to start reading Bruen: Before Bruen’s seminal novel of the Irish fascination with the American dream, American Skin, or after American Skin. I’m of the camp that before American Skin is where you want to start. Hell, start with American Skin and work backwards. The best reasons to start before American Skin are numerous, including the first Jack Taylor novel, The Guards,  but mostly it has to do with Bruen’s second best known creation, Detective Sergeant Brant.

Like Taylor, Brant is bent on self-destruction. But unlike Taylor, who rages against his vices and demons, Brant fully embraces them. Brant is a dedicated cop, but he also has no problem with ripping off drug dealers for a fix, or acting as a pimp to score a little extra cash to make up for his poverty level existence, or in killing a suspect that he doesn’t have enough evidence on, but who he knows is guilty. With Brant, the job gets done, you just don’t want to look too closely at how he accomplishes his goals. If you want to fully embrace the barely contained insanity of Sergeant Brant, make sure to check out the first three books in the series, A White Arrest, Taming The Alien, and The McDead, all of which are conveniently package in a single book, The White Trilogy.

Now you’re probably thinking: You know, this guy Bruen seems really interesting, but fuck, every novel seems to be blacker than the next (and no, you’re not too far off base with thinking that). Well, the cure for that is Bruen’s collaborative Hard Case Crime trilogy written with Jason Starr: Bust, Slide, and The Max. Now don’t get me wrong, these three books are plenty dark, but the story of coked-up, legend in his own mind, Max Fisher and his mistress, Angela, contains some outright belly laughs as the two fumble their way through various murders and swindles gone bad.

Like all of the authors I've featured in Why The F*ck Aren't You Reading, anywhere you begin your journey with Ken Bruen is sure to be deeply satisfying.

About the author

Keith Rawson is a little-known pulp writer whose short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and interviews have been widely published both online and in print. He is the author of the short story collection The Chaos We Know (SnubNose Press)and Co-Editor of the anthology Crime Factory: The First Shift. He lives in Southern Arizona with his wife and daughter.

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