By Pete Haynes
(Caffeine Nights Publishing, UK) (208 pp.)
Imagine moving in a world that's followed its own unspoken code for decades. The rule of law means nothing, since you are the law, and everyone else knows better than to say otherwise. However, just as all the players settle into their roles, an event turns the existing order upside down – leaving you a stranger in a strange land.
This dilemma, in a nutshell, is the situation that infamous paramilitary figure Donny Campbell faces in COOL WATER, the latest novel from Pete Haynes (former drummer for the Lurkers, and, lately, God's Lonely Men). The setting is Belfast, Northern Ireland, following the Good Friday Agreement of 2000 – an event that's supposed to put an official exclamation point to 40-odd years of bloodshed between Catholics and Protestants, and create a new world for both sides to coexist together.
Donny is a product of that world. Bit by bit, we see his transformation from a boy watching grainy films of Nazi rallies with his abusive, fascist-enamored uncle (“Don't listen to the lies of the weak ones. They are everywhere”), to a murderous psychopath capable of shocking, sexually-tinged violence that he videotapes – with his favorite '70s and '80s songs for a soundtrack – to relive and relish over and over again.
These qualities are also precisely what make Donny useful to the shadowy businessmen, cops and political bosses who run Northern Ireland behind the scenes, as Haynes suggests: “Donny's instrumental function was in the business of fear, redirecting those that strayed from the set procedures and boundaries, and as this was a fundamental role in the functioning of the whole system, his reward and status was commensurate with the importance placed on his activities.”
As the novel progresses, however, Donny soon realizes that he no longer fits the official narrative of opportunity and reconciliation that the establishment he served is now zealously pushing. To maintain his grip, Donny falls in with Lord Roddy Harding, an upper-class figure who's even more depraved and dangerous – if that's possible – than his newfound partner in crime (“It has always been the same, Donny, the king of the jungle selects his prey – and his pleasures”).
Before long, the pair – armed with knives, knuckledusters, scalpels, and other unsavory implements – set about satisfying their murderous urges, which also puts Donny on a collision course with the masters who are now avoiding him. In the process, the reader has to ask some disturbing questions: whose lack of morality is greater? Monstrous as he is, does Donny deserve some measure of our sympathy – since, in many ways, he's only acting out the abuse and social disconnection of his broken childhood?
Haynes sets up these questions with skillful characterization and description, down to the secondary characters – whether it's the painfully unfashionable karaoke master (“It had been many years since he realized that he was out of time and too old”), or Edward Scrivener, who reluctantly takes up the social work life as his acting dream crumbles into ashes (“he became known as 'the person who works with kids'”), or Katie Preston, the ambitious woman who draws inspiration for escape from Belfast in self-help books (“knowing she was not going to run planet Earth, she looked forward to her future in getting what she wanted”). These figures pass by the reader in varying stages of boredom and moral weariness that runs like a red thread through the narrative.
As you've probably gathered, COOL WATER isn't easy reading – particularly for violent scenes that make the likes of Pulp Fiction seem closer to a Sunday stroll, by comparison. Graphic as they are, however, these qualities are hardly gratuitous – they're an essential aspect of a story in which the line between official and unofficial thuggery is razor-thin, at best. What happens when those lines are crossed as a matter of course? As Haynes suggests, the answers are anything but simple, easy, or comforting.
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