Monday, May 13, 2013

Cross by Ken Bruen - an OG critical piece

When Cross first came out, was a brand new release, I wrote the below piece. It started off as a regular review and grew into a critical examination and a prediction of where the series was going and how it would end. I dug this out of the archives to share, it is unchanged and presented intact, mistakes and all.


Quick Take: The endgame for the series has begun.

If Priest was an examination of violence born of an inability to deal effectively with grief then Cross is a multi-faceted examination of evil. Chief among the questions asked here is whether evil exists and whether it is bred or born. Bruen easily provides an answer to the former; evil does exist. The answer to the latter, more basic philosophical/theological question is harder to answer. Examples of both sides are presented by Bruen and a valid case is made for each side of the argument. The reader may ultimately decide that the answer is both.

Cross comes across as more plot-driven than the other books of the series and less of a character study. Jack is an active participant in the investigation, which remains for the most part front and center and retains a more linear progression. This is a nice touch and reflects Jack's still relatively new found sobriety. But a less introverted plot certainly doesn't mean that it is any less hard hitting because when Ken Bruen is the one throwing the punches they hurt.

In a surprising development Bruen dangles the possibility of Jack Taylor going to America in front of us. This prospect certainly raises a lot of 'what if' type questions in the minds of the reader.

We expect a certain type of ending with a Bruen book - and in particular a Jack Taylor book - and Cross doesn't disappoint. But while the ending of Cross does pack a wallop it’s interesting that it is of a more subtle nature. Upon its arrival it’s no less devastating than the others but instead proves to be quieter in its conviction as it hits close to home.

Cross is the sixth book in the Jack Taylor series. While with this series it is absolutely imperative to read the books in order Cross is most assuredly a companion novel to Priest. A full working knowledge of Priest is necessary for even the most casual reading of Cross. So with that said, the following portion of the review is going to discuss specific plot points and should only be read by those who have read all the books in the series. You've been warned.

There are two books left to be published in the series after Cross. Typically when a series is completed you can look back at the whole thing and see how the final events started to take shape in the lead up books. One of the things that I want to try to do here is recognize the writing on the wall while its being written. I want to crack them open and take a closer look at them.

There is an interesting series of events that take place near the end of Cross that I believe may signify that the endgame has begun. Slowly the end of the series is starting to take shape.

Cathy is a specter constantly looming over Jack's life and the story itself. She will not make a physical appearance in Cross, but her presence is always deeply felt. The last time we saw her was when she suddenly appeared before Jack in Priest and swore a blood feud. Her highly focused, simmering anger chilled the veins of both Jack and the reader. The completion of her story arc will be a powerful one as certain machinations beyond Jacks control seem to have been set in motion. Cathy is now the Angel of Death and is being set up as executioner.

Before a death sentence can be carried out one must first stand before his accuser to be judged. Enter Cathy's husband, Jeff. Late in Cross he makes a brief but memorable, late-night appearance on the beach. In their exchange Jeff condemns Jack for his sins and more importantly refers to him and their relationship in the past tense. It’s a quiet, powerful moment as Jack stands before him, judged. Jack's past actions, and one in particular, the death of Serena May, comprise his Jacob Marley's chain. With the final judgment passed Jack only has to wait for his sentence to be carried out.

The meeting with Jeff is not the only scene in Cross that takes place on the beach. The ocean plays a telling part in the events of Cross, especially near the end. When Stewart and Gail are sitting on the beach he tells her " the sea washed away everything and then was quiet." Since Stewart is there to kill her we can take this literally to mean that her body would be carried away but given the prevalent religious imagery throughout the series we can also take this to mean that the water could wash away ones sins. In other words the ocean is being presented and set-up as a baptismal font. What's interesting about this set-up for the role of the ocean is that there is an earlier scene in Cross when Jack enters a church to light some candles for his dead and he dips his fingers into the holy water font to cross himself and discovers it to be dry. Jack is not yet ready to partake in this ablution.

This brings us to the climax of Cross, the fight between Jack and Sean on the beach. After they fight Jack takes Sean's body way out into the ocean and uses stones to weigh the body down and keep it under. Since the ocean has already been established as a baptismal font when Jack came spluttering and staggering out of the ocean to collapse on the beach his sins have been washed away. Even the locations of Jack’s injuries from the fight with Sean and from an earlier fight are possessed of a religious significance: head (crown of thorns), hands (nails) & side (spear). THIS ablution washes away his sins and clears the way for his trip to America and the promise of a new start.

I find the epigraph quote that opens chapter 22 to be interesting. It’s a line from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure: "A thirsty evil; when we drink we die." Which ties in very nicely with Cross because both works deal with the theme of the many faces of temptation and the constant struggle of resisting it. In Jack's case his alcoholism.

Maybe the epigraph provides a clue for us that there are allusions to Shakespeare in the Jack Taylor books. When Jeff appeared before Jack I found myself being reminded of The Ghost's appearance before Hamlet. There are other allusions to Hamlet buried in Cross.

More so then any other play of Shakespeare’s Hamlet has an abundance of ear imagery and references to hearing. In Cross it's Jack's ear's that plague him most. He loses his hearing and has to be fitted for a hearing aid.

Though it’s not discussed as much as the other themes Hamlet inverts the process of revenge. Others before have stated that Hamlet is an indecisive character due to the way that the plot unfolds. By asking a series of questions and examining everything leading up to a decision the expected action is continually post-poned. Cross too inverts the idea of revenge. On one hand Jack finds that he wants to avenge Cody's death but since the person who killed him is Cathy he refuses to take action. Cathy also wants to take revenge on Jack. The problem quickly becomes a Gordian Knot. What the stroke is that cuts the knot remains to be determined. It is yet another sub-plot that will be very interesting to see reach conclusion.

A prevalent theme in Hamlet is the motif of a country being represented as a body. Jack is in many ways the walking embodiment of old Galway before the economic boom. Jack's aging represents the passing of the old ways to make way for the new. From the very beginning this has been one of the most prevalent themes of the Jack Taylor books.

One of the most famous questions explored in Hamlet is the contemplation of death and suicide. Death in general is greatly explored in Cross as well and although Jack doesn't contemplate suicide directly on some level he does become resigned to his fate by his unwillingness to go after Cathy as long as he stays in Ireland. This decision one could argue leaves his fate up to chance but it could equally condemn him because he knows that Cathy won’t let up and what she is capable of doing.

When Jack became involved with Serena May in The Dramatist he discovered first hand the redemptive power of children. She provided him with a lifeline back to humanity. Serena May represented Salvation for Jack. Her death at his hands took away the possibility of Salvation and will seal his fate.

Since salvation in the afterlife is now denied to Jack due to the death of Serena May he more actively considers America as his door number three option when it is presented. Going to America is a way to side-step his sentence and start fresh. But there is a telling moment that occurs twice in Cross that indicates Jack's willingness to ultimately forsake this option. Twice Jack is invited to sit down and given the choice of chairs. Both times he takes the hardest, most uncomfortable chair. The second time it happens is with Father Jim who says to him "You don't want the easier option" and "But at a guess, you take the hard route most times." This act of taking the hard chair and Father Jim's explicit observation acts as a very subtle foreshadowing that sets up Jacks later choice.

At the end of Cross Jack has sold his home and, in that moment, is willing to leave it all behind. He has made his peace with this decision and has said good-bye to the city and to others, with one glaring exception though, he hasn't said good-bye to Ridge. He knows that he hasn't said goodbye to her and doesn't plan on doing so. One of the final acts of the book takes place when Jack is literally on the verge of leaving. His phone rings and against his inner judgment he answers it. It’s Ridge calling to tell him that her cancer is malignant. Jack, with a sigh of resignation, sits and talks to her. In the quiet moments that close the book he knows he's not going to America. Jack forsakes his shot at a new life to help his only friend that he has left, Ridge. In the end this decision will condemn him; possibly to death by Cathy's hand but certainly to the hard route that lies ahead.

From the beginning the trajectory of Jacks story arc marks him as a tragic figure whose downfall has been in the cards since the opening hand was dealt. He is neither a good man nor a bad man; he's too complex a character for such simple designations. But he has done bad things, quite a number of them actually. Redemption is still possible for Jack but it would have to be quite the act of sacrifice that would redeem him. I think that redemption and death are very possible but redemption without death is unlikely.

The writing is on the wall; Jack, Cathy and Jeff are being positioned for a final explosive confrontation that will be biblical in proportion. This literary triumvirate is headed quickly for a collision. There is now so much raw emotion, anger and sub-text tied up with these characters and their relationships that a palpable dread permeates every interaction. As this dark drama unfolds in the streets of Galway no one is safe and at least one of these characters will probably die. As much as readers love the Jack Taylor series of books a happy ending just wouldn't fit.

With nothing to suggest this other then a gut feeling my personal opinion is that the final Jack Taylor books will probably unfold in a manner similar to Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano. Whether Jack is Hugh or Geoffrey I honestly couldn't say but regardless how it ends it is shaping up to be one of the great finishes of all time.

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