With his first novel, Tiger in Eden (2012), Chris Flynn displayed an acute ear for the vernacular that was occasionally profane and equally poetic. This quality continues in his new novel, The Glass Kingdom, particularly through the central characters, Ben and Mikey. Both men are misfits of the first order. Ben, the older of the pair, runs a sideshow alley game, Target Ball, for a motley travelling carnival making its way through the backblocks of rural New South Wales, fleecing the locals and getting into the occasional bar-room brawl, all while running a relatively lucrative methamphetamine trade.
Ben is something of a mystery, although we know that he has served in the armed forces, that he has seen serious action, and that he has brought his military training and propensity for violence home to civilian life. Mikey, initially his sidekick, is a young man from the west (Fremantle). He appears to be somewhat clueless, but he is also gifted with a sly, watchful eye. While Ben’s life with the carnival is a cover for his drug business, Mikey has his own ambitions in life. His trade name is ‘Mekong Delta’, and his business is writing and performing rap:
Join up wit NASA an’ fly to Venus
Read the news on TV like Anton Enus
Run away wit da circus like Bailey an’
Or become a rock singer like Johnny
Like any decent (or indecent) rap artist, Mikey plucks pop-culture references out of the air like a man picking apples. Later in the novel, while on a wild ride of escape through the badlands, he references Wolf Creek, ‘five-o’, (a moniker for the police straight out of HBO’s The Wire), and ‘yo’ rhymes from the era of Simon and Garfunkel’, (riffing off the previous line ‘your father is your uncle’). Mikey/Mekong is an endearing character, a flawed and funny vagabond in an ensemble cast of variously dysfunctional drifters, each of them deluded by grand plans, get-rich-quick schemes that rely on grifting those around.
Mikey takes his chance at gathering a fortune and perhaps bankrolling his rapping career when he steals a healthy block of meth from Ben and takes off in a car belonging to Steph, Ben’s girlfriend. She has dreams of her own, which materialise in a cocktail of tarot card reading, New Age mumbo-jumbo, and a growing affection for Ben’s solution to any problem he faces – violence. It is what he knows best, and he is skilled at it. As Mikey disappears into the dusty horizon in Steph’s beaten-up car, we follow Ben and Steph in their pursuit of the young thief.
The story is arranged in four parts. The two major sections, ‘Corporal Benjamin Wallace’ and ‘Mekong Delta’ are told in the first person, from Ben and Mikey’s perspectives. Flynn’s fine ear for voice, rhythm, and pace, on full display here, are a major strength of the novel. His characters are sharply drawn. We come to know and inhabit these men not only through what they say, but how they say it. Flynn is also a great choreographer. Whether it be Ben, Mikey, or Steph, the characters inhabit a three-dimensional landscape where movement, be it subtle or dramatic, creates its own tension and poetry.
I suspect that Chris Flynn has travelled some of the same roads that Ben traverses in his hunt for the fleeing Mikey. I could taste the parched dust and experience the same big empty skies that Ben surveys. I was also impressed by the dystopian present of the novel, an alternate outback world shadowing our own. In a scene both distinctly Australian and simultaneously reflective of failed communities around the globe that exist hand-to-mouth somewhere off the map, Ben and Steph muse about all things big, such as the ‘Big Worm’ and the ‘Big Merino’, exercises in pathetic gigantism, attempts to revive struggling communities that we often witness when travelling through economically depressed towns the world over.
‘The characters inhabit a three-dimensional landscape where movement, be it subtle or dramatic, creates its own tension and poetry.’
At one point, while on the road the couple take a detour to ‘Cactus World’, only to find that it is closed for the day. As I read the scene where they forlornly stare through a wire fence at the array of plants, I was reminded of (dare I say it) the 1983 road comedy National Lampoon’s Vacation and the moment when the Griswold family finally arrives at the theme park ‘Walley’s World’, only to find that it is shut for the day. It may appear a less than sophisticated reference point for The Glass Kingdom, but it is appropriate, as Flynn finely balances genuine tension with farce, serious menace with fractured comedy. His characters, particularly Mikey, as he appears to morph more completely into Mekong Delta toward the end of the novel, do not ‘break bad’. They are broken from the beginning. It is how they fall apart that will hold the reader’s attention.
The Glass Kingdom is a wild ride, showcasing people and the landscapes they inhabit, which never make it to the one-dollar postcard carousels. It is a novel about places and a life both removed from the experience of the urban, but no further away than the edge of the horizon. Chris Flynn is a talented writer primarily interested in telling a good story. In doing so, he also provides an uncomfortable but rich insight into the shadowy recesses of society.