American Skin by Ken Bruen – review

american skin ken bruenI originally reviewed American Skin by Ken Bruen on December 14th 2006

In the last couple of years, since the explosive popularity of The Guards, Ken Bruen has had a large swell of popularity here in America. All of his European crime novels are being republished here with increased and continued success. If one didn’t know any better one would have assumed that Bruen was the world’s most prolific writer because with the mix of reprints and new material he has had, I believe, 16 novels published in the last 6 years. Which is a real boon for those who discover his writings because you can really get your fix after you have been hooked on the good stuff (pssst, Bruen’s the good stuff)? Up until this point all of his novels have been set primarily in Galway or London. A couple of the characters made brief excursions to The States in Taming the Alien, the middle book of The White Trilogy and the second book in the DS Brant series. But those characters trips were brief as is befitting the blistering pace of that series. It was only a matter of time before Bruen had set a story here and we have been waiting with baited breath for it. Well the wait is over; American Skin is Bruen does America.

American Skin takes its title from the Bruce Springsteen song of the same name. A look at the lyrics of that song with lines like “We’re baptized in these waters and in each other’s blood” and “You’re kneeling over his body in the vestibule Praying for his life” gives insight in to the nature of the book. Stephen Blake, our narrator, his best friend Tommy and a vicious IRA man, Stapleton rob a bank. Siobhan, Blake’s girlfriend who works in a bank, will launder the money. The bank job doesn’t go nearly as well as planned. Blake heads to America leaving one partner dead and the other left for dead back in Galway. After the money is clean Siobhan is to come to America and join Blake. Meanwhile Dade is a psychotic loose cannon who is terrorizing families all across the Southwest who eventually teams up with one tough bitch who Blake met briefly in New York. The story will careen back and forth between time and characters as all of their paths criss-cross leaving a wake of destruction and the dead.

One of the more interesting aspects of American Skin is that Bruen uses his Irish characters and their interactions with Americans to isolate and explore some of the cultural differences. Neither is presented as being the superior one just that they are different. Where one lacks the other excels and vice versa often times the relationship is complimentary. Also throughout the book the relationship between the two countries and their cultures is a constant theme as the Irish characters seem to have a fascination with America and the American characters are fascinated with the Irish ones.

Here Bruen uses a simple exchange between some guys having a drink at a bar to highlight the emotional outwardness of Americans as compared to the emotional distance of the Irish.

First night there, we did what you do, if you’re Irish, you go to the neighbourhood bar. Get oriented. As it goes, we got talking to a guy who worked on the trains. Two beers in, he says,

“I love you guys.”

And goes to get us a brew.

Tommy watches him and turns to me, asks,

“What’s fucking wrong with him?”

Me, the sophisticated college boy tried,

“He’s just being friendly.”

Tommy shook his head, said,

“Oh, he’s gay”

I kept my voice low, said,

“No, it’s the way they are, they’re just…”

I had to search for a word to capture the essence, attempted,

“Up front.”

He actually mouthed the word, let it dance about his mouth, he looked like it didn’t fit and he nodded, went,

“So, back to my original point, there’s something wrong with him.”

I told the sad truth, said,

“No, there’s something wrong with us.”

Another example further illustrates the perception of an inherent emotional vacuity.

“He said in that way Americans have,

“I like you buddy.”

It’s so forthright. So almost innocent.

I come from a completely different race. We’d near die before we’d say such a thing. Tommy was my best friend, we’d been through hell and high water, spent an inordinate amount of time together and the closest we’d ever come to such a statement was,

“Ah, you’re not the worst.”

And even that is couched in throwaway style, lest it sound to intimate, to invasive. The neighbourhood I grew up in, sure, you’d have friends, people you loved, that you’d trust absolutely but never and I truly mean [i]never[/i] would you demonstrate your feeling in a public fashion.

You ever tried to hug someone there, you’d lose your arm from the elbow. You asked someone,

“How are you?”

It was more likely to mean,

“How are you fixed?”

Meaning do you have some money and more importantly, are you willing to give me some?

Ask any Irish woman about her man, about the sweet talk he’d produce, and you’ll hear,

“Oh yes, he told me I wasn’t the worst.”

My parents, I loved them, no question, I never once told them so, as my mother lay dying, fighting for breath, my declaration of love consisted of,

“Can I get you anything?”

I am aware of what a tragedy that is.

Here we have interesting observations on the two languages. How a language that goes back centuries will have words with a deeper meaning and more resonance then a continually evolving one or a newer one. Also the observation that countries can seemingly have their own national identity is touched upon near the end.

In Irish, there is a lament, torn from centuries of poverty, oppression, violence. It goes…

“Och ocon.”

Hard to render the exact meaning, but woe is me comes close. Or, Fuck this.

We Irish have the lock on melancholy, never happier than when we’re sad, rising to our finest moments on prayers of lamentation. Or best music, best writing has at its core a profound sense of grief. We’ve never been short of reasons why and the rain doesn’t help.

Bronach.

I love that word, the sound of it, literally it’s sadness but a step beyond, the place where you are broken. I shook myself, had to move out of the shadows, rid myself of spectres. If Galway had been absolute sadness, then let New York be about survival. I rolled the window down, let the sound of the city drown out the Irish echoes.

When dealing with his more tragic characters one of Bruen‘s trademarks is having his narrator tell the story in the past tense, looking over his shoulder at the demons following him. It gives the story a scope of vision that allows for a wistful melancholy that is due to them being fully aware of the magnitude and enormity of that which they’ve done and the repercussions from the fall out. It lends a tragic weight to the tone of the story. But more importantly it presents itself in an interesting way because we know of the consequences but not the action, so the action becomes the reveal. It’s a subtle tweak but a powerful one when used properly. As time goes on and I read more of his books I am becoming increasingly convinced that some of Bruen‘s more tragic characters, Jack Taylor and Stephen Blake spring immediately to mind, are really dead and their stories are being told to us from the grave even though we have yet to witness either of their deaths.

Siobhan believed you made your own luck, and thanks to me, she ran out of all the hard-earned luck she strived so long to achieve and that is my burden. It’s not so much that that I led her astray but that I had her think a new life was not only possible but within reach. She’d done all the work, and me, I let it unravel. They say no sin is unforgivable, well, they’re wrong. I believe there is one sin without redemption and that is to hold out the prospect of a better life and through sheer fecklessness, to let it slip away. If the Jesuits are correct and the fires of hell are being stoked for me, I’m going to ask,

“Put on a few more coals.”

It’s quite likely that no one: God, the fates and Bruen included are harder on his characters then they are themselves. They are the wardens of their own Hell.

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Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

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