I deliberately avoid reviews of books I know I’m going to read. Too many are thinly disguised book reports, recounting the major plot points until a couple of paragraphs at the end where the reviewer tells you if he liked it or not, and what he thinks it’s about. Most reviews, especially of the unpaid, online variety (like this one) leave the teacher in me yearning to give two grades. (“C+ for the content, but A- for the grammar and spelling. You can do better.”)
Because I don’t read reviews, I came to Declan Burke’s Absolute Zero Cool expecting something along the lines of Elmore Leonard channeled through several pints of Guinness. I’d read Dec’s previous books (Eightball Boogie, The Big O, and Crime Always Pays) and liked them a lot. His characters are fun, the dialog crackles, and the plots unfold well.
I knew the premise: a character from an unfinished novel comes to an author who closely resembles Declan Burke (even having written novels called The Big O and Crime Always Pays) and demands to be resurrected from the limbo into which unfulfilled fictional characters are cast. He’s different now, more likeable, worth working with/on again. Yes, he wants to blow up a hospital; no one’s perfect. The novel is the interplay between the author and the character. Sounded to me like a perfect set-up for someone of Dec’s gifts, playing with the author/character relationship, tweaking those who swear their characters “speak to them,” and their writing is little more than transcribing what they’re told in these literary séances.
I was right. I can’t think of anyone else who could have written this book. Hell, I don’t know anyone with the balls to consider writing this book. Certainly not me. All of the characteristics that drew me to his previous work are there, except it’s not Leonard sharing the pints; it’s James Ellroy. This isn’t crime for profit’s sake, with a little hipness thrown in; it’s depravity examining its navel.
The book doesn’t read like Ellroy. Burke wields the rapier where Ellroy uses a baseball bat, the book’s rough lyricism not unlike hearing The Commitments sing “Try a Little Tenderness.” I’m reminded of Ellroy by the darkness of Billy Karlsson’s thoughts and acts, noir-ish yet not completely self-destructive, leaving the reader to wonder at times who’s head he’s in, the author’s or the character’s, even though we know they’re both the same.
I stopped dog-earing pages halfway through. Already too much material to efficiently mine for quotes; might as well read the whole thing again. A riff on Tuesdays. A heartbreaking description of miscarriage. Recurring thoughts of sharks and Hitler, of everyday things we don’t like but accept, take them for granted because we all know that’s how things are, even if we won’t admit it. Billy knows, and the perambulations of his thought process drive someone mad. Probably not him; Billy was a nutter on Page One. Maybe it’s the author. Read on, start to follow the logic, to anticipate where it goes next, and the reader can only hope it’s not him.
How good is the writing? This good:
The opening paragraph:
The man at the foot of my bed is too sharply dressed to be anything but a lawyer or a pimp. He is reading, intently, which leads me to believe he is a pimp, as these days lawyers are more usually to be found writing novels than reading them.
When the author’s former agent says one of his books will be translated into Italian and that “Maybe the advance will pay for a weekend in Rome.”
Maybe. If I swim there.
When the author suggests Karlsson wanted to be a writer until repeated rejection turned him sour and led to his dream of blowing up the hospital, Billy replies:
Too narcissistic. Only a writer could be that self-absorbed.
Billy riffing on religion at the scene of an accident:
Priests are up to their oxters in the pus-filled boil of your fear, groping for the maggots they placed there before your birth. The concept of Original Sin is an evil so pure it verges on genius. Even the paedophiles wait for the child to leave the womb.
The author, realizing Billy is no longer fully under his control, if he ever was:
No Billy for three days running now. Maybe he isn’t coming back. Maybe he’s holed up in some garret, feverishly rewriting my life, consulting the story of Moses and Pharaoh for inspiration.
Is this how God felt when Einstein started doodling in the patent office? No wonder he struck Hawking down.
AZC is brilliant and baffling, enjoyable and vexing, funny and disturbing. I finished with much the feeling I get from Ellroy, a sense of “What just happened here?” understanding this is writing on a plane higher than I read. I don’t get it all, but I leave knowing I’ll be back to for another piece before too long.
How do you describe something unlike anything you’ve ever described before? Here’s a suggestion: read Absolute Zero Cool, then try writing a review. Let me know how it goes.
Absolute Zero Cool may be pre-ordered for November delivery at Amazon (US) here.