Friday, January 19, 2007

American Skin

Ken Bruen's American Skin is a hyper-violent noir novel that defies the traditional narrative structure while telling a compelling story about trying to escape one's past. The title is a reference to the Bruce Springsteen song, but the book could also be called Irish Skin. The main character Stephen is trying to escape Ireland, and the stereotypical Irish problems of poverty and drink, by running to America. He actively tries to become American and at the end Irish people say he sounds American.

America is not held up as an icon though. The principal American characters are psychopaths. One is ex-con who models himself after Terry O'Quinn's character in The Stepfather. Another is a coal miner's daughter who started killing early and turned up the crazy dial once she found drugs. Stephen's main antagonist, Stapleton, revels in being one of the darkest forms of Irish nationalism, the IRA terrorist. Stapleton killed Stephen's best friend in a robbery and now wants the money that Stephen has.

The structure is unlike other noir which tends to set up the target and finds the characters fighting their way towards it, with a major clash at the end. Here, the story is about Stephen trying to become something else and losing much in the process. The climax comes at the very end of the book and is an unfinished afterthought. That's OK, because the story is about Stephen, not the money.

I will say that about halfway through I wondered where Bruen was going with all of it. The crazy American male named Dade, made little sense for most of the book, but I think is tied into the narrative by the end. It's nice to read something that doesn't play out as you expect.

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