Friday, October 5, 2012

Friday's Forgotten Book: Ken Bruen's SANCTUARY

Ken Bruen's Sanctuary is the seventh novel in what is now a nine volume series featuring policeman-turned-private-detective Jack Taylor.  You certainly don't have to read the series in order, but it is a series set in history and it helps to do so, as his characters live and learn.

One of the best things about this series is that the protagonist, like the author, is a great reader.  I'm always taking note of the titles Jack Taylor mentions, which usually provide clues to his mindset in the novel.  In Sanctuary, Taylor is reading The Secular Journal of Thomas Merton.

That early journal of Thomas Merton (1915-1968) found him contemplating the life of a Trappist monk in the Abbey of Gethsemani, which happens to be in my own Kentucky county, not many miles away.  Merton later became the most famous monk in America, known for his books and poems, his stance against the Viet Nam War, and his acceptance of many secular buddhist ideas into his Catholicism.

Taylor shortly introduces a Buddhist character into the plot, which gives him a chance to argue about some of those secular ideas.  They are Christian ideas too, but due to past transgressions, Taylor is down on the Catholic Church and especially its human representatives.  

The 1962 movie, Sanctuary, starring Lee Remick as Temple Drake, was based upon William Faulkner's novel, Sanctuary, and its sequel, Requiem For A Nun.  The plot involves the mysterious killing of Temple Drake's child for which the mother is on trial.  Decades later, author Toni Morrison reworked the plot, tied it to genuine Kentucky slave history, and the resulting novel, Beloved, won the Pulitzer Prize.  I still recall seeing Morrison's praise of Faulkner when she appeared on Oprah.

Like Beloved, the plot of Ken Bruen's Sanctuary revolves around a similar mysterious killing of a child by its mother.  This plot is mirrored by what seems an unrelated plot, of a serial killer with ties to the Church who also threatens to kill a child.  But this is a Jack Taylor novel, and a large part of the reading pleasure is in rooting for dour alcoholic Jack to get a grip on himself.

For if the world can be divided up between smilers and frowners, Jack Taylor is a chronic frowner.

When Oprah asked McCarthy what he wanted people to get out of The Road, he replied that he wanted people to be grateful, and said that it wasn't necessary that anyone knew who or Whom to be grateful to.

Which is to say that the state of gratitude is an attitude that doesn't require a definite object. You see it in our classic art.

McCarthy says in The Road:  "Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it." This was an allusion to the Marcus Aurelius stand that we should all live our lives as if they were things borrowed, and that we ought to be prepared to give them back at any time, saying thank you for this life which I have had in my possession.

To use a popular reference, the movie Groundhog Day has Phil Connors suspended in the existential "no" a la Samuel Beckett. He can't even kill himself, though he tries again and again.

In one scene, Phil drinks in a bar and asks his fellow drinkers the Sisyphus question, "What if you were stuck doing the same thing every day and nothing mattered?"

To which one of his fellow drinkers replies, "That about sums it up for me."

What happens in the movie is, Conners has an epiphany when the old man he is trying to save dies anyway. God is never mentioned once in the film, except humorously. This is reverent to the miracle of life, but not particularly religious.  It is certainly humanist.

Back in the bar, one of the other drunks observed that Connors was a glass-half-empty kind of a guy.

After his epiphany, he has a change of attitude toward compassion and gratitude. He evolves from an ego-dominated jerk who can only possess love to a superego-dominated man who can love unconditionally.

Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor is also a glass-half-empty kind of a guy.  The reader roots for him to change, to have an epiphany of his own, to be grateful for life.  The heart of his novel, Sanctuary, turns on whether Jack will seek spiteful revenge or find forgiveness in his heart.  To paraphrase the Kris Kristofferson song, we want justice, but we should settle for some mercy.

The early novels in Bruen's series have won several awards and are famous, particularly The Guards, but if this is your first Jack Taylor novel, be advised that Ken Bruen's style is airy.  That is, there are a lot of line breaks, fewer words per page than in most novels, and as a result, his books are very quick reads.

And the Jack Taylor novels are a far cry from Groundhog Day.  They're mostly glum, but don't let that stop you.  You'll want to read the entire series.
This is an extension of the Friday's Forgotten Book series, one of many, and you can read the other authors and bloggers at this link. .

1 comment:

  1. Haven't read this one. My favorite is THE DRAMATIST. Can't top that ending.