Book review: The Earlie King & The Kid in Yellow, by Danny Denton

Danny Denton
Danny Denton
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The first definition of “whim” in Chambers English Dictionary is described as “obsolete”. Nevertheless it may be fairly applied to this novel by Danny Denton: “a fantastic creation of brain or hand.” Denton is an Irish writer who has previously published some short stories and, as his publishers tell us, “been awarded several bursaries and scholarships for his work”, but this is only his first novel, therefore entitled to be treated with a certain indulgence. It is certainly a “fantastic creation” and one that people who like this sort of thing will undoubtedly like a lot. Lisa McInerney, another young Irish writer whose own first novel won a couple of prizes, declares that Denton’s book is: “Stunning… a work of dancing brutality and ferocious tenderness.”

It’s a dystopian novel set in a future Ireland where it never stops raining – echoing the Ridley Scott film Blade Runner. Told through a number of voices, it tells of gangsterism, kidnapping, pursuit. Denton insists on the importance of story and myth, and the importance of a rich oral culture. “Stories,” he says, “grow arms and legs, and tendrils and so on… It occurred to me early on in writing this book that the singular fact of a 13-year-old boy kidnapping his own son and going on the run could end up so strange that there would be no one way to tell it… So, in piecing together the history that became a legend, and then a myth, I found myself reaching for various forms, written, spoken, seen, heard…” He is trying, he says, “to re-create an alternative/fallen Ireland”.

It is in fairness that I quote what Denton says about his book, because, though I found it irritating, often boring, easier to put down than pick up again, it’s clear that he is both a serious and talented writer. Some of the descriptive writing is brilliant, some of the snatches of narrative vivid, and there is much fine atmospheric writing. I don’t know about the “dancing brutality and ferocious tenderness”, but buried in this too long and often overwrought book, there is somewhere a fine novel struggling to get out.

I come back to that definition of the word “whim”, obsolete as it may be: “a fantastic creation of brain or hand.” Now, fantasy is a popular genre, its popularity occasioned perhaps with dissatisfaction with the world of our common experience. Fantasy, you may say, is written into the world of our digital age where you can invent new identities for yourself at will. In the world of fantasy, anything can happen and consistency is not important; nor indeed is cause and effect. Yet even though fantasy can be illuminating, it is also always escapist; it turns away from the material world of everyday reality to one in which anything can happen. The trouble is that if anything can happen, then nothing that happens matters much.

For all its intelligence and brilliant pages, this novel, like so many literary novels today, takes refuge in a retreat from life; it represents a refusal, or at least a disinclination to engage in adult life. It is as if common experience, which has been the stuff of novels since the 18th century, is rejected as boring, whereas in truth it is the refusal to engage with such experience which soon becomes tedious.

No doubt I am being unfair in wishing Danny Denton had written a very different sort of novel, but that wish is occasioned by the belief that he is sufficiently talented to write illuminatingly about life as it is actually lived and experienced, instead of offering whims and whimsy.

Yet even while making this protest – even while remembering that Brian Moore, that very fine Irish-Canadian novelist, once said that while he admired the avant-garde, Joyce, Borges, Flann O’Brien, few could do that sort of thing well, and that the novelists who last are story-tellers (which is true) – I recognise that in our age of dissatisfaction and make-believe this novel will be read with excitement and delight by many.

The Earlie King & The Kid in Yellow, by Danny Denton, Granta, 355pp, £12.99