circa 1989—Sean Burke's debut crime-noir novel Deadwater
with its main character in a quandary. A young prostitute has been
murdered. Jack Farissey, an alcoholic and drug addicted pharmacist,
wakes covered in her blood and lying on a plastic sheet with no
memory of how or why he got into this state.
What strikes this
reviewer is that the murder and much of the mayhem of this novel
is accepted with strange nonchalance by Farissey.
He doesn't seem to take the fact that he woke up with blood on
his hands, not remembering a thing, as all that serious a personal
matter. What somewhat saves Burke here is that he quickly moves
the plot to point the finger at a local gangster, Carl Baja, although
unconvincingly. Not until late in the book does the reader sense
any real anger from Farissey toward himself, his decisions, his
actions. And even then, it is not a proper anger, but detachment.
There is no fight in him. Not for his innocence, not for his girlfriend,
not for his home, friends, honor, pride. Nothing. He is a non-man,
an empty man.
A lot of the novel's dialogue has a jaunty 'Lock,
Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' quality that makes it unconvincing.
Many of the
minor characters seem to float in and out as if in a drugged dream.
It is in the narrative and inner-dialogue where Burke shines, more
as poet than fiction writer or genre novelist. A little too late,
we are given the story of Farissey's boyhood friend Jess, who evolves
into a much more interesting character than Farissey. Perhaps if
Farissey was more like Jess, the book would have been better and
wrought with more suspense and conflict.
Another facet lacking
in this novel is a distinct connection with Wales. The action could
have happened almost anywhere. We do get
the glimpses of how the old neighborhood is changing as Cardiff
attempts to take its place as the capital of Wales and its representative
in the outside world, but those images feel like throw-ins. Butetown
is a doomed of the past and the New Cardiff must be built on top
of its ashes. Walk down St. Mary's Street on any Saturday night
between midnight and two in the morning, and you may get a glimpse
of the past—faux-debauched University students drugging, vomiting,
fighting in the alleys. With the posh cafés and upscale
bars sprouting up in resurrected Cardiff mingling with the whimsical
hedonism of the Uni students, maybe Burke is depressed for the
loss of what once was. It's somewhat like reminiscing for an old
girlfriend, who, even though she was foul-mouthed, uncultured and
insane, was much more exciting and spontaneous than the placid
shallowness and shine of the new.
But beyond these criticisms, and
perhaps because of them, Burke does weave an existentially interesting
story. For a first novel,
its merits outweigh its faults and it will be interesting to see
if he can duplicate or better it in the second round.