The Unbearable Lightness of Kevin Bruen
By Darina Molloy
December / January 2008
It’s no exaggeration to say that Ken Bruen could have stepped from the pages of one of his own novels. In fact if he didn’t already exist, he would have had to make himself up. Not that Bruen, a long-established crime writer, needs any help with the plots of his darkly gripping novels. But his life story is a page-turner in its own right. “You couldn’t make it up,” he notes more than once during the course of a two-hour chat in his native Galway, and he has a point.
The soft-spoken Bruen – born in Galway in 1951 and now living there again after years spent away – is a study in contrasts. He never wanted to travel but ended up teaching all over the world. The schoolboy whose parents were told he was probably retarded went on to become a star student, ending up with a string of degrees. He writes about alcoholism in stripped-down, close-to-the- bone prose, but says he rarely indulges in more than a couple of beers. He grew up in a house where there were no books, but he quickly learned to seek them out and remembers the library as a favorite haunt.
But it is in Bruen’s many books (almost two dozen and counting) that the biggest contrasts take place. Bullies who spout Baudelaire, Rilke-loving kidnap victims, and – in his newest novel, American Skin – an Irish man trying desperately to pass as a Yank, in a neat reversal of the usual stereotype.
In person, Bruen is wiry and angular, he could pass for a dancer, and his gentle voice has my tape recorder straining at times to pick up every word. He is entertaining company with a host of amusing anecdotes – probably well rehearsed on the publicity circuit he is no stranger to.
And yet, he says, people frequently expect him to be just like his most popular character – the hard-drinking, hard- thinking Jack Taylor, an ex-cop turned private detective in Galway city, and the bane of existence to many. “Well, I’m not a Garda,” he laughs, but what probably surprises even more avid readers is that he’s not generally to be found propping up a bar counter with a double Jameson in his hand. “I just wanted one series of books to show the other side of the coin,” he says seriously. “There’s the fun, and the going to the pub and the terrific party time – but my own brother died from alcohol and my wife lost two of her siblings – and I just wanted one series of books that says this is what it’s really like. And there’s very few families [in Ireland] that aren’t touched by alcoholism.”
If there is a raw quality to Bruen’s spare prose it’s a rawness that echoes throughout his telling of the life-changing events that have shaped him. The death of his brother Noel a few years ago in Australia still weighs heavily on his mind, but it is just one of a number of blows that have hit through his life. One of the first descriptions of himself he remembers hearing as a child was that he was ‘odd as two left feet.’ Sent to boarding school at the age of 10, Bruen found it a horrendous place to be.
“For the first three years, I always came last in class because I just could not figure out what was going on. So they wrote home – my parents actually kept the letter – saying ‘Your son is retarded. Maybe he might be able to get a job in a restaurant washing dishes.’” He says it all just clicked together one day for him and he went on to do well in exams and be admitted to Trinity College in Dublin. But he never forgot the poor reception he had received from his earlier teachers and it continued to rankle with him. “My own teachers were so horrendous, I thought I’m going to be a teacher and be exactly the opposite,” he explains. “I think that sort of traumatic start either makes you or breaks you. You can either become incredibly bitter and cynical or you can try and fight against it.”
One thing Bruen found himself unable to fight against was a brush with the law in Rio de Janeiro. In his late twenties, while working his way around the world teaching English, he ended up in a bar that Ronnie Biggs, one of the infamous English train robbers, was supposed to frequent. A fight broke out; Bruen and four other Europeans were arrested. Four months of incarceration followed, more than 100 days of torture and abuse. “It is certainly the most traumatic thing that ever happened to me,” he says quietly. “It sort of stopped everything.”
On his release he flew to London where he had friends from college. “They really looked after me. I was shattered. One day, they said to me, ‘We have these kids with horrendous backgrounds that we can’t reach,’ but I said, ‘No. I was finished with teaching.’ I wasn’t writing. I was just trying to keep my mind closed to anything and everything. Just trying to survive something that I never thought I would ever recover from.”
In an attempt to repay his London friends who had minded him so well, Bruen finally agreed to have a go at teaching some of the troubled kids they told him about. An instant connection was struck between the deeply damaged teacher and his ‘no-hope’ students, and life slowly started again. Wanting to reach them on their own level, he set about writing a crime story set in their London neighborhood and the rest is history. Bruen had been scribbling for years, keeping a journal of his travels, and also trying his hand at poetry, but this marriage of crime and literature was one that appealed hugely. Through writing he also managed to sort his emotions.
“The classic definition of depression is rage turned inwards and I was seriously depressed,” he recalls. “I was talking to therapists, but I was afraid to release the rage because I was afraid I’d do damage, and I was afraid if I acknowledged how angry I was, terrible things would happen. And then one day I let all that rage out and wrote, and that’s what I do … I get it all out on paper and literally get rid of it that way.”
Thirteen years ago, Ken and his wife Phil underwent another life-changing event with the birth of their daughter Grace, who had Down Syndrome. Six months later, doing what he did best, he penned a short novel called The Time of Serena May – the story of a couple living in London and trying to come to terms with the birth of their own Down Syndrome daughter.
“If you ask Grace about Down Syndrome she’ll tell you: ‘It means I’m special, but that’s no big deal – I know lots of special people.’” When Grace was about six, her parents decided to move from London back to Galway. “I really wanted Grace to grow up here,” he says. “I wanted her to be Irish, simple as that. I wanted her to be an Irish kid.”
Bruen smiles a lot throughout our two-hour chat but it is when talking about Grace that his face really lights up. “She has a mouth on her like a fishwife, just like her mother,” he jokes. “She’s terrific on the computer, she adores books, she cannot read enough. In school recently, the teacher was explaining about pessimism and optimism and asked Grace if she understood the concept. She said, ‘Of course.’ So the teacher said, ‘Would you like to tell us what a pessimist is?’ And Grace answered, ‘Yeah, my dad.’” Bruen is laughing aloud now, clearly enjoying his daughter’s sense of humor. “I thought, she understands it.” But the teacher had one final question on the subject. “And who would be an optimist?” “My mum,” replied Grace.
The Bruens have had other blows in recent years – a number of close family deaths and Phil’s battle with cancer. After two recent appearances on CBS Sunday Morning in the U.S. and on Ireland’s long-running Late Late Show, he was inundated with messages from viewers who were touched by his story. His upcoming memoir, Bronach (Sorrow), will be published in the U.S. next year.
Through it all, Ken continues to write, every day – including the day of his father’s funeral – and with determination. Someone asked Phil once if she thought her husband would stop writing if he got happy.
Bruen laughs as he recalls her reply. “She said if you knew him, trust me, happiness is not on the horizon for quite a while yet so we don’t have to worry.” But as the interview winds to a close and he prepares to head off across Eyre Square in the rain, patting his pocket to make sure he has the list of items his wife has asked him to pick up on his way home, Ken Bruen looks pretty damn close to happy.
Ken Bruen’s latest novel, American Skin, is published by Justin, Charles & Co.