End of the World Blues
John Courtenay Grimwood
I don’t know much about this author, but after reading End of the World Blues I can make some guesses. I would guess that he has read every novel William Gibson has written—more than once. Like Gibson, Grimwood gives us the plucky adolescent street-gamine; like Gibson, he has a quasi-criminal lowlife main character who is just trying to get by; like Gibson he has a character enamored of some drug; and like Gibson he has shadowy yet powerful men who bend the lives of the main character and the teenage girl who saves his life.
Kit Nouveau is a British deserter from the Iraqi war, who is running a biker bar in Japan. He lives with his Japanese wife Yoshi, a gifted potter whom he neither understands nor loves but feels bound to, and is having an affair with the wife of a powerful Japanese crime boss who is a member of the yakuza. Suddenly, an attempt is made on Kit’s life. He is rescued by a Japanese teenage street-girl who feels drawn to Kit because one morning he bought her a coffee. Neku, our street-gamine, is quite an accomplished assassin among other things. Almost immediately after the attempt of Kit’s life, his bar is blown up, killing Yoshi in the process. Kit begins to investigate the explosion when he is contacted by Kate O’Malley, a powerful English crime boss. You begin to see a pattern here. Kate is the mother of Mary, Kit’s only true love, who apparently committed suicide. Kate believes Mary is still alive, and even though she hates Kit, she wants him to get to the truth.
Kit flies off to England and Neku follows. Did I mention that Neku, a recent orphan, has a duffle bag with fifteen million dollars in it?
Running alongside this story is the story of Lady Neku, set in a distant future. Lady Neku is the youngest child of an ancient family of planetary guardians. She is preparing for her arranged marriage to the scion of her family’s hereditary enemies; and uncovering important secrets about her own existence. The story of Lady Neku unfolds next to the current-time story of Kit and Neku and it probably why the book is categorized as science fiction.
In current time, back in Roppongi, Kit’s biker friends have staged a stand-off with land developers in the ruins of the bombed out bar, while in London, Kit struggles through a case of mistaken identity, puzzles out the mystery of Mary, deals with the kidnapping of Neku, and finally decides to take part in a plot hatched by M16 to take down a Chechen—wait for it—crime boss.
To best the Chechen, free Neku and regain his life, Kit sloughs off the passive observer pose he has maintained through most of the book. He transforms into what events in the book have fired and shaped him to be—an action hero. He even gets to have a cool side-kick in the smart, pretty and deadly teenager Neku.
Because of the pottery in the beginning of the book, especially the repeated appearance of an exquisite raku tea-bowl formed and then rejected by Yoshi for unknown reasons, it is tempting to try to use a fired-clay analogy here, to discuss Kit as a vessel shaped, heated and hardened for his final destiny, but it doesn’t work. Kit isn’t a vessel; he is a sword, a length of folded steel tempered by fire into his true purpose. Earlier in the book, Kit has said, “I’m good at two things; tending bar and hitting targets.” He has already done the first thing; he will have to do the second if he is to save Neku and himself.
Grimwood’s writing is lively and every once in a while there is a breath-taking description. His use of artifacts, such as the tea bowl and later Neku’s notebook add texture and realism. There are also loose ends—at one point it appears Kit has a psychic link to Neku, but this is never explained. Early in the book, after the bar has been bombed, Kit hears the hospital staff talking about strange developments in his frontal lobe, presumably related to the apparent psychic link, but again, this is not developed. When we first meet him, Kit shoots heroin. Much later in the book, the Chechen offers Kit heroin and he is tempted. In the two hundred pages between those two events, Kit has no physical symptoms of withdrawal, and does not think even once about shooting heroin.
The futuristic story, while nicely done, unfolds with predictability. I wondered if this part of the book was in fact a failed stand-alone piece that Grimwood cannibalized for this book.
The story ends. The book diesels on for too many more pages as Kit returns to Japan, faces the Yakuza and escapes from an evil-overlord-style death-trap; all of this, apparently, so that Grimwood can make the plot circular and have us, to some extent, end where we started. The forcing shows. Grimwood should stop and look at the tea-bowl his own character made; off-center, a dented circle, a perfect example of the beautiful imperfection of life. This story does not want to be a circle. It wants to be a sword. William Gibson would have made it one.