Monday 24 July 2017

Review: Non-fiction: Absolute Zero Cool by Declan Burke

Liberties Press, €12.99

Publish or be damned is a wellknown saying but who ever thought that all the characters a writer abandons might end up in some sort of literary limbo where they must remain until published?

And what's more, who ever thought these characters might take it upon themselves to think up a plot wild enough to get themselves back into their creator's good books (or any book at all, for that matter)?

So begins the premise for crime writer Declan Burke's latest novel, Absolute Zero Cool. Burke has been a fixture on the Irish crime-writing scene for many years now. The Sligo-born maverick has single-handedly kept the underground of Irish crime writing afloat with his popular blog Crime Always Pays and his recently published anthology Down These Green Streets, featuring a gang of Irish crime writers.

His DIY spirit has seen him publish two other books, Eightball Boogie and The Big O. Both were well-received here and in America but their lack of commercial success almost led Burke to give up writing fiction completely. In a blog post in 2009 he wrote: "It is actually immoral of me to steal time to write fiction when I could be writing freelance material that will actually earn real money. And that's not even factoring in the time I steal away from my family on the writing."

This reader, for one, is thankful he stuck with the "immoral" path.

Absolute Zero Cool begins with the writer holed up on a six-week stint in a Sligo writer's retreat in an attempt to finish a book. But an old character, Billy Karlsson, just won't leave him alone.

Karlsson is a hospital porter who euthanases old dying patients. He also has a dastardly plan to blow up the hospital. Karlsson shows up unexpectedly informing Burke that he has been in limbo ever since he was shelved. Burke makes a deal with him to work on him early in the mornings and the character agrees to help in any way he can, even offering to write the part of his fictional girlfriend, Cassie.

It's all very surreal, calling to mind books like The Third Policeman, and John Banville got it right when he described this book as a cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O'Brien. Burke has a rich understanding and appreciation of the history of noir, adding in zingy one-liners and quips aplenty.

He peppers the novel with layers and layers of literary references, including 'lines of the day' to define the day he has had, which vary from Cyril Connolly's pram in the hallway to Aristotle's 'no excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness'.

Meanwhile, Karlsson is writing an imaginary book which includes the history of the Greek gods, which in turn calls to mind John Banville's latest novel The Infinities. Burke uses these incidental stories to reflect facets of his own book, pitying Orpheus, who had the misfortune of being redrafted by Virgil, Plato and Ovid, while he himself is redrafting his character Karlsson.

The book is so many things at once -- a defence of books; an excoriation of the dumbing down of our culture; a protest against the state of the health system in this country -- that its actual plot risks losing momentum but it is testament to Burke's ability that he manages to hold on to the story and keep it all so entertaining.

There are plenty of Irish references here too, from the priesthood and Sligo place names to incredibly up-to-date references to the banking crisis.

As the book goes on, Karlsson becomes more sinister and the reader's understanding of him changes -- is he Burke's alter-ego? Is Karlsson writing the novel and Burke the character? It's not all clever-clogs stuff though and at the heart of this book are real issues such as growing old and dying with dignity, relationships and fatherhood.

What is most refreshing about Burke's book is its ambition. It is rare that a so-called genre book attempts to wrest free of its constraints and do something entirely different. Absolute Zero Cool is a genre-buster. Clever, funny, challenging, surreal, unexpected and entirely original.

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