Thursday, September 18, 2008

Declan Burke's "The Big O"

Declan Burke is the author of Eightball Boogie (2003) and The Big O, newly released in the US.

Earlier this year he applied the "Page 99 Test" to the Irish edition of The Big O; now he has applied the test to the American edition and reported the following:
When I was writing The Big O I wanted it to be a fun read, one that played around with the conventions of the crime novel a little. I think that that’s there on page 99, where we have the two main characters, Karen and Ray, chatting over lunch. Ray’s telling Karen how as a kid he developed a tolerance for pain courtesy of a school bully. She’s a stick-up artist, and Ray’s into kidnap, but I wanted to undermine the stereotypes of the tough guy operator and the manipulative femme fatale …

Karen couldn’t help but feel disappointed, expecting a big finale, Ray finally getting around to stomping the bully. Not liking the way Ray deflected her expectations, sending them off on new tangents. Making Karen rethink, a couple of times already, like Sundance, who is this guy?

‘You could have at least fought back,’ she said.

‘I did. Caught him some good ones, too, nearly broke my fucking arm for him. You ever punch marble?’

‘And that’s it? That’s the story?’

‘What do I look like, Rocky? I’m knocking the guy down in the last round?’

Karen lit a fresh cigarette. ‘Don’t get me wrong, Ray. I’m not saying it’s not an interesting story. But I’m wondering, you take a girl out somewhere flash, then tell her you’re this six-stone weakling, how you let some bastard break your arm three years in a row …’ She exhaled to one side, keeping her eyes on his. ‘I think you’re missing the point here.’

What Ray doesn’t know is that Karen has come to lunch with the intention of cooling him off in the romance stakes, because she’s got too much on her plate planning a stick-up. Instead, by the end of the page, with Ray confessing a strength-through-weakness, Karen changes her mind. But that’s very much a feature of the story – while I wanted The Big O to be a hybrid of hardboiled noir and comedy crime caper, I also wanted the characters to be realistic, just ordinary folk struggling to make the most of their ever-changing circumstances. There are no real heroes in The Big O, just as there are no real villains – as in real life, everyone’s capable of doing the wrong thing if that’s what it takes to get by. And the characters aren’t particularly clever or ruthless – as often as not, they benefit from happy accidents, or because the person they’re dealing with has an agenda that chimes with their own. Ray, without ever knowing how close he came to being blown out by Karen, just gets lucky …

‘Put it this way. If you can blot out pain, you can blot out pleasure.’ He winked. ‘It’s why I can go all night. Just switching it off.’

‘And you’re not using this technique on me – why?’

‘Maybe I don’t want to wear you out right away.’

‘Take a chance. I mean, if I’m hating it, I’ll let you know.’

Ray shrugged. ‘It’s your funeral.’

‘I’ve always liked the idea,’ Karen said, ‘of dying happy.’
Read an excerpt from The Big O and learn more about the book and author at the publisher's website and Declan Burke's Crime Always Pays blog.

The Page 99 Test:: The Big O (Irish edition).

--Marshal Zeringue