Shopping, SpaceWitch and A Fantastical Librarian
Charles Stetzle on the Bulwarks of Booze

Underground Reading: Bust by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr

BustThis is the latest installment in my steady quest to review each and every Hard Case Crime publication, one every week (more or less). You can follow along here.

Bust (2006). By Ken Bruen and Jason Starr.

Well, that was crazy. 

Let me try that again. 

So, Bust is the story of four characters, not one of them pleasant. Max is an IT entrepreneur type, sleazy to the core, who likes to seal the deal with hookers and uses the word "classy" without really knowing what it means. Dillon is a former IRA hit man (he was more of an IRA "hanger on" with a penchant for irrational homicide). Angela is a curvaceous "classy" (Max's definition, not mine) woman, currently schtupping them both. And Bobby is a veteran in a wheelchair who really, really misses his life of crime (fortunately, his hobby of surreptitious photography is keeping him busy).

Mix the four of them together, and the result is a comedy of errors. Or, more accurately, a comedy of their errors, for as wild and bonkers as the characters may be, the authors play this stinkin' crew like a harp from Hell. (To quote the Penguin, of course.)

First, the plot. Max hires Angela because he likes her breasts. Angela's seeing Dillon, because he likes her breasts and she likes the fact that he's Irish. (She's Irish herself, in that, she affects an Irish accent because she thinks she's Irish, despite being born in the US and having once gone to Ireland - a place she didn't particularly like. Are you getting the picture yet?) Max would like his wife gone, so he can have access to Angela's breasts in an uninterrupted fashion. Angela pitches Dillon to Max as a gun for hire. Max hires. Dillon does some gunning (a little too much). Bobby likes to take photographs of breasts, and in the act of taking some, catches Max in the act of handling Angela's. (Breasts, that is, not photos.) He contributes blackmail to the murder and adultery.

Second, the characters. As you may have gleaned from the paragraphs above, they're neither particularly pleasant nor intelligent. In fact, they're all bad, dumb people. I'm not sure what the equivalent is - imagine a James Ellroy book without the empathy. Or A Fish Called Wanda recast with only Kevin Kline. 

Third, the crazy. Bust is nuts from start to finish. There's a telling scene towards the start of the book when Max is lambasting one of his salesmen. Max yells (booze in hand, prowling his office, which is largely decorated by photos of women in bikinis) that the salesman needs to take the client to a strip club, buy him a hooker and close the deal. The salesman politely demurs. He's happily married. He doesn't work that way. Their product is good. Etc. Max froths. Salesman demurs. Guess what? The salesman does it his way... and he loses the deal.

Bust is that. Bust is a good product, a tidy little murder/blackmail story, wrapped up and pitched at the reader in a capsule of pure over-the-top, physically comic, utterly sleazy wrong. And bless the authors for it. No one does anything cleanly or rationally, the good guys never win (in fact, neither do the bad guys), everyone's got a secret fetish and nobody - nobody - knows what "classy" actually means. Max is right. There's doing things the proper way, and then there's guaranteeing the sale. And who is to argue?

Yet, to extend the metaphor, Max is just as wrong. Sure, the nebbish salesman that won't hire prostitutes gets the can, but as Bust goes on, Max's tactics suffer too. The temptation with Bust is to see it as the strip-club world, the over-the-top fantasy, the overstuffed abundance of it all. If Max is right (god forbid) and this is his world, the bizarre logic of the book's foursome... makes sense. Yet, as the authors remind us, it really doesn't. Reality reasserts itself. First it creeps in on little cat feet - a rash of STDs reminds us that shagging everyone in sight isn't a great idea and a few news reports indicate that this isn't all happening in a vacuum. Then the real world snaps back like a rubber band. Max and Friends aren't living the life, they're living a complicated, mutually-aided-and-abetted illusion. This reversal (or re-establishment) of fortune, is perhaps where Bust has the most value. Although set up as a romp - bad, funny people doing bad, funny things - there is a bit of a sneaky moral to it. Certainly Max, Angela, Dillon and Bobby may never learn their lesson, but that's fine - the reader picks it up for them.

A very crazy, very funny, very dark and incredibly mean book, Bust certainly isn't for the faint of heart. It takes everything that modern culture finds holy - beauty, success, love, patriotism, family - and turns it on its head. There is redemption though, but it comes for the reader, and not the characters. Bust is the enemy of our enemy: it is bad things happening to bad people, and it is hard to say that it isn't deserved.

Bust has a fun cover by R. B. Farrell. Excellently composed, and it explores one of the many, many definitions of the word "bust". (Arguably, the most tasteful of the lot...)