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.