I fucking love what Ray Banks does. The guy’s prose is tough, his characters tragically human, his worldview grim yet recognizable, and his stories manage to eat at your soul while still taking the time to give you a few well-earned, boozy laughs. But what I admire most about Banks’ work is a bit harder to describe than all that great shit. What consistently floors me in all his novels to date is his restraint.
Now restraint is not always a good thing. Sometimes the best novels are the wild-assed, holy-fucking-shit-I-can’t-believe-the-author-went-that-far masterpieces of bugfuckery, books full of insane revelations and shocking depravity that makes you want to stand up and applaud the author’s sheer ballsiness. Though Banks’ shit is always dark and very violent, it’s never crazily so. The body count is rarely high (sometimes no one dies at all) and his stories are always involving but never even remotely approaching over-the-top. (Like I said, dude has fucking restraint.) In fact, I’d say he’s the most consistently “realistic” writer in the genre working, his stories the most organic, his characters and their motivations the most recognizable. Banks’ new novella, California, displays these rare qualities proudly and fucking brightly (but in a, you know, subtle kind of way) in just under a hundred pages.
Upon his early release from prison, Shuggie Boyle decides to skip on his parole and head to California, specifically to the inviting climes of wine country. Thing is, before he can leg it he needs to go to the town of California in Scotland to pick up his share of the post office robbery that got him put in the clink to begin with. So he steals an old man’s car and hits the road, hoping to get in and out of town without anything setting off the temper he’s worked so hard these last few years in the joint to get a grip on. If you think such a task will be easy for our hero, you should probably, as Steve Coogan once famously said, read more. (Wonder how many times I’ve referenced that line in my nearly three years as an online critic. Don’t bother checking – I can’t bear to face the true depth of my own derivativeness.)
California is a stark look at man’s inability to change, an exploration of a guy who, even if he can escape to Napa Valley and change his environment, will never escape the eternally angry and violent man he is, no matter how many times he “counts down from ten” or “channels his frustration in a positive direction” as the prison therapist taught him. But as my favorite authors know, such themes should serve the story, not overshadow it, and Banks never lets the heady shit get in the way of this punishingly dark and gripping story.
To say much more would ruin the very brief ride that is California so the Nerd is gonna wrap shit up now. If you’ve never read any Banks before this is a fucking fantastic introduction to what he does. From there you’re definitely going to want to check out his Callum Innes novels, the last of which, Beast of Burden, is coming out in the US later this year, a series the Nerd has long said is his favorite take on the PI genre. It’s discovery time, dear reader, and the Nerd just threw a fucking beautifully drawn map in your slack-jawed face.