Saturday 3 December 2016

Review: Absolute Zero Cool by Declan Burke

Declan Burke's subversive story of a struggling writer and a sociopath is darkly hilarious, says Hilary A White
Liberties Press, €12.99

Hilary A White

Published 09/01/2012 | 06:00

Consider the crime author too deeply and you may find yourself never wanting to actually meet one.

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These, after all, are the very folk who have made an art out of depicting the unthinkable and unspeakable as all too readable. Murder, rape and theft are their flour and water, fundaments that they surely spend an unhealthy portion of their lives poring over. Would you really leave your child with such people?

Being something of a gentle blowhorn for the range of quality huddling under the Irish-crime-fiction umbrella, Declan Burke would have considered the species, to which he too belongs. For years he has curated the crime-writing blog Crime Always Pays and also edited the recent compilation on 21st-Century Irish crime fiction Down These Green Streets. Thus, it would be safe to say that Burke probably understands more than most about what makes the clowns of crime writing laugh. As Absolute Zero Cool (his third novel) crystallises on to the bookshelves, the Sligo-born scribe sprinkles in his findings on this in a manner that is stylistically removed from anything being attempted by his peers.

You will spot Burke winking at you here and there or jabbing his tongue elusively into cheek throughout this darkly hilarious amalgam of classic crime riffing (hep Elmore Leonard-isms and screwballing) and the dimension-warping reflections of Charlie Kaufman or Kurt Vonnegut. Like the latter's Slaughterhouse-Five, Absolute Zero Cool sees another Billy "come unstuck" in what is, frankly, a brilliant premise.

In this case, sociopath Billy Karlsson presents himself to a struggling writer (let's call him Declan Burke) at a retreat in Sligo. Billy is the protagonist of one of Declan's shelved projects and convinces the author and father of one to re-write the aborted draft with a variety of suggestions and changes to release him from unpublished limbo. This involves Karlsson, a hospital porter, promoting himself from idle pillow euthaniser in the old-age wards to all-out architect of the hospital's structural demise.

The pair meet regularly over a breakfast of coffee and fags for snappily phrased workshopping and bickering. Billy, it turns out, is also busy writing Sermo Vulgus, his own wildly intense prose about his attractive on-page partner Cassie. The strands -- Declan and Billy, Billy's writing excerpts and those of Declan -- all rotate within four chapters which mark the seasons, commencing with winter. That the final chapter is a play on the US term for autumn gives an idea of the hospital's fate.

The outcome may not be hovering in the back of your mind during the intervening pages, however, because there is too much fun being had getting to know how Billy/ Declan/Burke rolls. "He" makes amusingly lyrical musings deep into classical history and mythology; Prometheus, Herostratus, Medusa are all there to be read into (or perhaps, on the other hand, it's all just "bullsh*t to keep the intellectuals on board", as Declan puts it to Billy).

There's also plenty of stoned elaboration on the couch about sharks, Anthony & the Johnsons or George Clooney, alongside more hardened ruminations on the state of the HSE and the Irish bailout.

Despite these direct prods at modern Ireland, you never feel like you are contained within something parochial in context. Burke's ideological brushstrokes are broad and universal, even if, disconcertingly, they happen to be the philosophical strolls of a psychopath. The silken, rhythmic tongues of his charges are lubricated with touches of classic crime nuance. One hopes that this will grant Burke's book a passport to overseas readerships because it is too special to be confined to a small island in the North Atlantic.

The aforementioned lumping together of Billy/Declan/ Burke is not a case of shortcutting, by the way. A point does arrive where you start to wonder who is writing whom. Once that has entered your mind, Absolute Zero Cool's initially hiccupping flow bites hard and pulls you under in a way that you never saw coming. You've just been blind-sided by the real Burke's Machiavellian orchestration and seed-planting.

Subversive, shifty brilliance? Meta-fictional jiggery-pokery? Clearly the work of a criminal mastermind.

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