“A fascinatingly messy knot of signifiers” – The Earlie King & the Kid in Yellow by Danny Denton

Denton’s debut novel isn’t so much post-apocalyptic as mid-apocalyptic: his Ireland is a derelict, flooded, Ballardian tech-dystopia, where the baddies (the Earlie King and his garish, ghoulish Boys) are out against the vigilantes (Vincent Depaul, pyromaniac champion of the poor), the cops (the Heavies) are useless, and the people in their drowned flats are hooked on Fadinhead and deafened by the endless babble of the city intercom. Not only that, but – and no spoilers: we find this out straight away – everything’s about to get blown sky-high, leading to the Great Digital Catastrophe, and meaning that the events Denton’s relating are all cast in the murky gloom of legend…

The Kid is a thirteen year-old runner for the King, and the King himself is a nameless gangster surrounded by a crew of uniformed henchmen. When the Kid not only falls for, but impregnates, the King’s fifteen year-old daughter, T, it’s not good news for anyone: T dies in childbirth, the King takes the baby, and the Kid is cast out on pain of death. But the Kid had promised T he’ll take the babba, and so he sets out to do just that: to kill the King and save his tiny daughter. Meanwhile the cops, unbeknownst to the Kid, are trying to help him, and Vinnie Depaul is starting fire after fire: the Boys are closing in and time is running out.

The Earlie King & the Kid in Yellow is Ballard-meets-Barry (the Boys’ skins, or rain-gear, wouldn’t be out of place in a Bohane fashion-show), with some Ridley Walker and Cormac McCarthy thrown in (the Kid’s badland wanderings) and quite a dollop of Blade Runner (the drenched cityscape, the dodgy cops, the sinister technology); it’s a crime novel (parts of it are narrated in flash-back by an aging policeman), a love story (of sorts: the heroine is dead) and a sci-fi nightmare (everyone’s digitally tagged; everybody’s doomed), and it’s also a riotous finger to a load of Irish clichés (you think it rains a lot now?). It’s steeped in mythology – the Kid’s a kind of born-again seanachaí, reciting poems and legends to anyone who’ll listen (the Salmon of Knowledge features during a brutal kidnapping scene on a drowned motorway), and the whole novel is cast as a sort of origin story for the Ireland-yet-to-emerge-from-the-waters. All of which is to say: it’s very busy. There’s multiple focalising characters, from Ward (the cop, wanting to help the Kid) and O’Casey (a self-aggrandising hack who keeps tabs on the Boys) to the Kid himself; there’s interludes where we trail around after Mister Violence (self-explanatory), and parts told as a play that’s mostly set in the back room of a pub haunted by the Earlie King himself. It takes about half the book to really get going – much of what comes before is scene-setting – but when it does, it’s powerful: atmospheric and painful and enormously tense. The Kid’s efforts to save his own child are nicely handled: his ineptitude and ambivalence (he’s only a child himself, remember) are scarily realistic, giving the whole adventure a terrifying ambiguity: would the baby, in fact, be better off with the gangsters…? The whole Kid/T/Babba plot is presented as a pseudo-Christian miracle: the book’s full of portents and omens and mysterious events (T’s twelve-month pregnancy; the moving statues suggesting the sun will come out; the Wandering Question Mark cult that fixate on the infant), but Denton’s not pushing a singular interpretation – there’s nothing neat or definitive going on here, but rather a fascinatingly messy knot of signifiers for the reader to unpick if she’s so inclined.

As weirdly captivating as the book is, though, I’ve got to haul it up on a count of gender imbalance: the two prominent female characters that do feature are, in one case, dead (T appears only via the Kid’s saved text messages and a (probably fraudulent) séance) and, in the other, preverbal (the baby); the rest are pretty much all walk-on roles for sex (O’Casey does okay) or child-care (because All Women Know How To Feed Babies). Jeri, the wandering theologian, is, perhaps, an exception (though she too seems to have unwarranted skills in child-rearing), but given the large cast that populates the rest of the book, it’s a shame that, for instance, some of the Boys didn’t turn out to be Girls.

Any Cop?: Denton’s flung everything and anything at this one: it’s a genre-mash-up like few others. But let yourself bask in the madness and you’ll enjoy it. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

 

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