Book Review: Ken Bruen’s “A Galway Epiphany” — A Vision of Exhaustion

By Lucas Spiro

Jack Taylor’s awareness of his own depleted condition is part of A Galway Epiphany’s Beckett-infused drama.

A Galway Epiphany: A Jack Taylor Novel by Ken Bruen. Grove Atlantic, 400 pages, $26.

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When I first started writing about Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor series, the world was a very different place. Donald Trump had recently been elected and the Brexit thing was new. Those and other events were considered of-a-piece with rightward, semi-autocratic shifts in Western liberal democracies. Headlines were about ISIS and the refugee crisis. A lot of bodies were at the bottom of the Mediterranean, immigrants forced to flee one place only to be met by another with a vicious mix of bureaucratic indifference, xenophobia, and compassion (of the thoughts and prayers variety). Things were bad and getting worse. Whatever solutions that were proposed seemed wholly inadequate.

At the time, I wrote that the noir genre, and Bruen’s particular vantage point, was “uniquely capable of responding to the intersections of criminality and politics, of sucking the grime to the surface while pulling the seamy superstructure back down to earth. While Bruen doesn’t offer much hope or solutions, there is nothing fake in his unfiltered vision of our violent world.” I still believe this is about his work, but in the wake of the pandemic, which is raging with ferocious intensity across the US, I wonder if reality hasn’t caught up with this writer’s dark imagination. Perhaps even outpaced it? Has so much grime been  sucked to the surface that the patina around the world is so thick that it’ll take more than a heavy rain to wash it all away? Or a vaccine?

The answer wasn’t consoling, so I wasn’t looking forward to reading another of Bruen’s books about his ill-fated yet venerable private investigator. The Sisyphean marathon of near other-worldly torture normally reserved for Jack seemed too much to bear given the arrival of the plague. I was worried I wouldn’t see the humor in absurd suffering — to imagine a smiling Sisyphus. A Galway Epiphany suggests that Bruen may have come to the same conclusion. He has always written his mysteries with a wry sense of self-awareness. A Galway Epiphany expands on a vulnerability characteristic of the “Galway” volumes. In Trouble is Our Business, a collection of new stories from Irish crime writers, Bruen’s contribution gives us Jack sulking in the background of a pub while a foe from a previous book gets the story to himself. The bartender calls Jack “a former legend.”

A Galway Epiphany also smacks, self-consciously, of exhaustion. Jack’s awareness of his own depleted condition is part of the book’s Beckett-infused drama. It’s obvious Jack has been losing a step over the past few years. He’s sinking further into depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse — as the blood-dimmed tide continues to swell. He is increasingly over-matched, which leaves Jack desperately vacillating between wanting to be the hero and knowing he isn’t one. Bruen’s dizzying plots and counter-plots, reshuffling the old noir themes of innocence and experience, isolation and friendship, death and redemption, are not just overwhelming Jack — they seem to be smothering him. He is incapable of confronting the complex human experiences around him in positive ways.

When we last saw the private detective he’d managed to befriend Keefer, a former Rolling Stones roadie living in the Galway countryside. Jack is an urban creature, so this change in scenery was perhaps meant to foster a restorative change. At Keefer’s, Jack bonds with a falcon (he’s always been a kind of St. Kevin when it comes to animals). He uses this Yeatsian prop to set up a violent end in the previous book. No peace was found: falconry, country living, drinking bourbon, and talking about the ’60s can only distract Jack so much from grieving his daughter’s death.

The violence that comes to Galway in this installment of the series arrives in the form of a child, or what appears to be a child. Two migrant children, a brother and sisters from Guatemala, have surfaced in an Irish direct provision center. (“Direct Provision” is the polite term in Ireland for a refugee camp. It’s where an ineffectual state puts people who are deemed to be powerless and “stateless.”) A viral YouTube video pops up that shows these kids standing before a glowing statue of Mary. They begin to be known as the ‘miracle children.” The wonder of it all draws in people from all over the country, believers who are in need of supernatural evidence. (Ireland is primed for this kind of hysteria at the moment.) With this premise Bruen is engaging with a real life event, the cultural legacy of the ‘moving statues’ phenomenon that occurred in Ireland in the summer of 1985. A series of claims about ‘moving statues’ of Mary generated headlines and massive gatherings all over the country.

The “miracle” attracts the attention of a “black ops” division of the Vatican in the form of a bishop that Jack has little time for, as well as the usual chancers who are out to exploit the naiveté of the faithful. A California-based group of fake nuns organized more like a criminal pyramid scheme than a charitable organization also arrive on the scene. They’re looking for a way to capitalize on the “miracle children,” joining forces with a local pyromaniac who is setting Galway alight for no apparent reason other than to see the world burn. Whoever controls the children in this scenario has the upper hand, and nothing is what it seems.

As I said, Jack really isn’t up for the detective job anymore. Despite the characteristically chaotic plot, A Galway Epiphany is slower and more personal about Jack than the preceding books in the series. His task is to confront his own grief and deterioration by exorcising the world of the forces that exploit, terrorize, and destroy innocence. Then he finds out that innocence itself is cloaked in a dark force all its own. Jack ends up detaching himself, literally, from much of the chaos that engulfs the story. He goes on a bender that puts him out of commission for days while violence and catastrophe befalls others around him. In a move that reflects — and preempts — the isolation of our pandemic year, Jack requires a week of self-isolation at a safe house used by the Church, an institution he despises. He needs to hide out at the time when he should be taking meaningful actions to resolve dire conflicts.

Without giving anything away, it’s not clear whether Bruen or fans of the series will see how interwoven Jack’s sense of helplessness and the pandemic are. I’m not even sure they should. But it is worth thinking about. The all-encompassing nature of a pandemic has forced many in the developed world to accept the kind of totalizing Hell that Bruen’s fictional Galway has come to represent over the course of the series. Perhaps Bruen’s vision of mounting grime is closer to reality than we might have admitted pre-COVID. If so, we might need to prepare for a similarly Sisyphean fate.

Lucas Spiro is a writer living in Dublin.


  1. Kenneth Bruen on December 3, 2020 at 1:23 pm

    Thank you Lucas for such an erudite, insightful deep analysis of the book.
    Have a great Christmas.

    • Jim Toth on December 24, 2020 at 1:54 pm

      Ken, I’ve read all your Jack Taylor books.
      Your characters and your stories have helped me survive some of life’s difficulties in ways you can never imagine. I have no words of thanks great enough to convey my sincere gratitude for your having shared your great gift of story-telling with the world. You provide insight into alcohol and drug addiction, past childhood abuse, uncomfortable relationships with friends and family in a humanizing and, dare I say, “hopeful” way. Through Jack’s experiences, I’ve been able to process in some cathartics sense, some of my own struggles. Your stories provide humor, sadness, rage, struggle, defeat, and redemption. They’ve been a joy to read. Thank you again.

  2. Barbara Campbell on December 7, 2020 at 5:34 pm

    I read it this weekend. I have always looked forward to the next Jack Taylor book. This one was way more upsetting than any of the others. Is this the last of the series? I cried. I know that’s stupid but I was heartbroken.

  3. Sylvia Byrnside on March 25, 2021 at 6:02 pm

    er go?!!!!! Well I wrote a bunch but it’s in the frigging ether I guess. Love your books, suits me to a T. Kind of late writing to you, don’t kill Jack Taylor off, you must not DO that. From SC I truly love your bad arse!!

  4. Richard J Brenner on March 28, 2021 at 2:34 pm

    I clicked on this page to see if Bruen had come out with another book, because realized that I hadn’t read one in about a year. For a long while, ever since I first connected with Bruen, I became an instant fan, and went back and devoured every book he ever wrote, while looking forward to what was to come. But when I checked today, it was more out of force habit, than out of true anticipatory excitement. I’ve found his last couple of novels, not counting the latest, which I haven’t read, at least not yet. They were, for me, perfunctory, reading as though they were written for money, rather than to create artful fiction; perfunctory and terrible repetitive (how many times is someone going to restock Taylor’s emptied bookshelves with knowing hipness, or a bartender who does-or doesn’t know-how to pour a Guinness?). Lucas Spiro writes that Jack seems tired and played out, which is exactly what I had come to think of his creator. Maybe, Bruen needs to create a new protagonist to recharge his writing, one who is far distanced from Taylor. OK, now have at me, Bruen fanatics!

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