Kerrigan is a man of quotes. They substitute nicely for thought.

Kerrigan in Copenhagen, by Thomas E. Kennedy

[I'm posting this review before Mr. Norris Changes Trains because I left the Isherwood at work and won't have access to it for another week or so.]

I’ve said before that whether or not a book has a single sympathetic character is irrelevant to how good the book is. Some books need characters the reader will like, perhaps empathise with. I don’t deny that. A crime series without an interesting central detective is a dry thing. Generally though the idea that a book is flawed merely because it lacks characters the reader might want to be friends with is ludicrous.

All of which is fine, but the truth remains that I abandoned Kerrigan in Copenhagen because I couldn’t stand to share even one more page with its suffocatingly smug protagonist.

Kerrigan

A couple of years back I worked on a deal which involved a fair bit of travel to Copenhagen. I grew to like the city, and returned there on holiday with my wife. We’ve been out a few times now, enough that I feel like I know the place and perhaps have a degree of connection to it. This year we chose it for our wedding anniversary, and what better book to read for a wedding anniversary in Copenhagen than a romance set in that very city?

The short answer is almost any book, since I abandoned this one on page 106 (of 234). I moved on to a James M. Cain and didn’t look back. My only regret is not bailing sooner. So it goes.

Kerrigan is a US academic. He is in Denmark ostensibly to write a guide to Copenhagen’s bars with the help of his (predictably) beautiful research assistant and her “jade-green eyes”. Kerrigan’s recently divorced. His wife, a much younger woman, left him – falsely alleging that Kerrigan mistreated her so as to ensure she has sole custody of their child.

What all this means is that Kerrigan is a man on the rebound. His life has fallen apart, and his project, his work in Copenhagen, is essentially one long pub crawl. There are over 1,500 bars and cafes in the city with new ones opening and old ones closing all the time. If you really wanted to write a guide to them all you could spend the rest of your life doing so. If you’re going to drown your sorrows, you might as well do it in style.

So far so good, and reading that description above I can see why I wanted to read this. Even more so then when I add that Kerrigan’s guide is as much to the literary connections of Copenhagen’s bars as it is to the quality of their beer. He keeps an unfinished copy of Finnegan’s Wake in his pocket and uses each visit as an excuse to regale his assistant with details of the city’s cultural history. A key point here is that you can actually use this novel as a sort of guidebook – it’s quite possible to follow Kerrigan’s path and visit the bars he does.

The problem though is the character of Kerrigan himself. He’s never short of a quote or factoid regarding the history of a person or place. He’s always ready with a relevant anecdote. Too ready. He won’t shut up. I found him exhausting and tedious, Kennedy showing his research all too plainly on Kerrigan’s sleeve.

Here’s an example of Kerrigan’s inner monologue:

Kerrigan lights a cigarillo, thinking of Lotte the eighty-six-year-old executive secretary, wondering if she has ever read Ewald or Wessel both of whom were born in the 1740s and died in the 1780s, who lived in the time of Struensee, middle-aged lover of the teenage Queen Caroline Mathilde, and who were Sturm and Drang contemporaries of Goethe, whose skull was found to contain a small quantity of gray dust by East German bureaucrats one sark November night in 1970.

He considers the overview of history he labors to gather in his own skull and its fate. Gray dust that no one will even bother to peak through his eye sockets at. But just to see history once, almost clearly, before then. A complete history and juxtaposition of everything – or even just a history of the place where he is living – to clothe himself in it would be very fine raiment indeed.

It continues in that vein for quite some time, Kerrigan’s goal of course being to clothe himself in wider history so as to cover the nakedity of his own immediate past. His conversations aren’t that different. Largely they consist of him showing off his considerable knowledge to his assistant while she queries why he needs her when he already knows so much. Naturally there’s a spark of romance between them.

Not just with her though. Kerrigan’s an attractive man, with his “Montblanc pen, pleasingly weighted in his hand” and his designer Italian jeans which he rather fancies himself in:

He stands to fetch another beer. Blurrily he sees a woman with a coarse nose sitting by herself nursing a small glass of beer at the next table from his own.

“Hello,” says Kerrigan.

“Hello, then,” she says in British. “I like your Italian jeans. Can see the label. Not that I was looking at your bottom or anything.” Her accent makes him think of Basil Fawlty’s wife in Fawlty Towers: I kno-ow, I kno-ow.

Kerrigan asks her, :Why are women so beautiful?” and she says , “Aren’t you the sweet talker?”

I am deeply suspicious of novels where middle-aged writers are found attractive by a range of women for no reason particularly evident within the text. It always smacks of wish fulfilment. Kerrigan’s pretty proud of how he looks which is fine but I didn’t buy anyone in Copenhagen actually agreeing. He’s a middle-aged American wearing the classic American-academic-abroad uniform of jeans and sports jacket. As for “I like your Italian jeans”, does anyone actually talk like that?

The descriptions of Copenhagen and its bars are pretty good. Otherwise though I found Kerrigan unconvincing and worse uninteresting, and I profoundly didn’t care whether he got into his assistant’s bed or not. I felt like a pedantic drunk had sat at my table in a bar, blocking my easy exit, and was lecturing me at numbing length about Hans Christian Andersen and Kierkegaard and jazz and several other topics that I might well have found interesting if I wasn’t constantly being beaten over the head with it.

Kerrigan in Copenhagen has generally received good reviews. Here‘s one from the Guardian and here‘s Guy’s from His Futile Preoccupations. Guy had some reservations, but overall liked it much more than I did (not hard, I admit). Guy’s reviews are always worth reading so I do recommend you take a look at his for a second opinion.

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6 Comments

Filed under Copenhagen, US Literature

6 responses to “Kerrigan is a man of quotes. They substitute nicely for thought.

  1. I remember Guy liked it. It’s rare that you abandon a book.

    That said, I get your point since I abandoned The Summer without Men for the same reasons. (uninteresting narrator loving to refer to poets and philosophers…)

    PS: I never heard anyone with a line like “I like your Italian jeans” but I’ve been out of the dating scene for a while now. Who knows how things are now?

  2. The most unlikable characters of all for readers are those whose shortcomings cause you to think: This guy seems to be a reflection of the author and I don’t have much desire to know either of them better. That seems to be the case here.
    Too bad, for me at least. While I have never been to Copenhagen, I’ll admit that as a fan of Danish television series (Borgen, The Bridge, Unit One — and that is just for starters) the plot outline of this novel had appeal. For now, I’ll stick with the tv portrayals.

  3. “I am deeply suspicious of novels where middle-aged writers are found attractive by a range of women for no reason particularly evident within the text. It always smacks of wish fulfilment.”
    Now that gave me the best laugh of the day. I liked the book’s Danish history/Culture approach but lost me on the love/sex angle. Looks like the Guardian liked it more than I did though.

  4. Times change Emma, but I’m not so sure that people do. I just couldn’t believe that line. Besides, they’re both older than I am – they predate my exit from the dating scene.

    Kevin, good point re the most unlikable characters. Obviously I’ve no idea what Kennedy is actually like, but it doesn’t really matter – the character felt like wish fulfilment and whether he actually is or not isn’t really relevant to that failing in terms of portrayal.

    You recommend Unit One? I’m not familiar with that one. Did you try Those who KiIll? It’s not top tier Danish crime drama – too obviously modelled on the more conventional US crime procedurals – but if you’ve run out of others…

    Guy, I agree on the strengths and weaknesses. It was just that for me the strengths didn’t outweigh those weaknesses. I put in the links to the more positive reviews in case anyone reading those quotes thought that it sounded interesting to them even if I hadn’t liked it (which would be fair enough of course).

  5. I’ve had this on a wish list after having read Guy’s review. I must admit I’m not that keen anymore. “I like your Italian jeans” now that made me laugh. I suspect if someone paid that type of attention they would at least name the brand. Overall the book sounds quite clichéd.

  6. That was part of why it didn’t convince me. If she’d said “I like your Armani’s” that would have been fine, but “I like your non-brand identified Italian jeans” doesn’t really fly for me.

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