Bad City Blues by Tim Willocks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Another out-the-door read, I began this in order to get it off my shelves. I’m trying to downsize books, and I felt that this would be a good read-and-donate, so away I went.
I may have to reconsider this plan of action.
While this is the second Willocks book I’ve read, it’s the first of his to be published. Green River Rising was my first, and it’s undeniable that while that book is more polished, Bad City Blues is more viscerally interesting. There’s certainly a sense that Willocks is working out ideas here, and the writing sometimes veers close to formula, but in genre fiction, that’s hardly a cardinal sin.
Willocks’ writing here is resolutely Southern-fried gothic violence. There’s touches of Chandler and Cain, with sweaty balls; religion, robbery and the fuckery love leads you to are foremost. It’s lurid and full of fucking and fists, with an obsessive level of detail: no jet of semen or drop of blood are unaccounted for. There’s hard choices and much harder men. Indeed, once you discount the family drama of the tale – the recrimination-laden story of the two Grimes brothers and their father – what you have is an examination of Bad Shit Men Do To Each Other. The book becomes a kind of battle royale: who will survive? Who will be left?
Parts of Willocks’ life have undoubtedly made their way into the work. Cicero Grimes, for example, is a mysterious doctor who eschewed the high life of elective surgery to work with junkies of his own selection; the author likewise has worked with addiction. There’s a second dan black belt in Shotokan karate in his history, and the discipline – and associated body-breaking moves – shows up in the text. Authenticity is here, and it doesn’t have the usual feeling of exhausted noir remove you’d expect in the genre.
The book acts less as a narrative about a crime and more as a portrait of three men. They’re all shambolic fuckers you wouldn’t want to come across, well, anywhere. The three – a doctor, his returned-vet brother and a cop of prodigious gut and torturing ability – intersect over the proceeds of a bank heist, funds whipped from under the nose of a religious fool by his wife, who has links to each man. While Callie, the female character, is drawn fairly poorly – she really just features as a driver for the narrative – the three men are fearsomely well developed, and not as one dimensional as you’d expect, given the terrain. Here’s an example of Willocks’ prose, describing one of the brothers. It’s about as much character development as we get, but it’s very telling.
In the discipline of the army he’d found an enemy worthy of the wildness in his heart. Anything so juvenile as to try bucking the system never crossed his mind. He ate the system, made it his. He consumed the discipline like fuel. He never bitched, never hesitated, never flinched. He kept all the disobedience in his eyes where his instructors and NCOs would read it and pick up the glove and try to break him. They never did. And between the moulds of their brutality and his own internal anarchism Luther turned himself into that rare being, the superb soldier.
Or, as his buddy Beckett had been fond of putting it, the controlled psychopath in search of death.
There’s an appealing sense of tension between the three men, as each is probed for weakness. The money ceases to be an issue: in a way it’s about these hardest of men being dismantled to see what will hurt them the most, as physical pain is shown – most brutally – to not be the kicker. It’s titanic and grim and very readable, this sweaty example of Caliban’s rage.
What’s interesting to me about this work is that it has reminds me of Garth Ennis’ writing for Preacher. Both authors hail from the UK, and both write about America and American characters from the position of tale-tellers who undoubtedly love the forms they’re working in (and the stereotypes they examine) but who are forever outside the tent by dint of their places of birth. Extend that logic a little far and we end up in the cul-de-sac which says only psychopaths can write about psychopaths, but I think it works in favour for Willocks: the South portrayed here is supercharged. There’s intense focus on detail, but it’s described as if underwater, recorded by a naturalist in a diving bell.
The Bad City of the title is a place where all the barriers break down, and we see what’s left. It’s a place I suspect it’s better to see others visit than to spend time in yourself. Willocks is a pretty good guide, you know.