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The Killing of Butterfly Joe, by Rhidian Brook

10 August 2018

Malcolm Doney enjoys a tale of life-changing friendship in the US

THIS novel, Rhidian Brook’s fourth, is a vivid, eccentric tale peopled with vivid, eccentric characters, and set in the United States in the 1980s. Llewellyn (Llew) Jones, a young Welsh would-be writer, is looking after his aunt’s house in the Catskills, painting her barn, and cataloguing her library of American literature.

Llew tells himself that he is writing his “Americodyssey”, a travelogue written in verse. In reality, he is reading through the library and smoking too much weed. His life has stalled.

Into this hiatus bounds the larger-than-life figure of Joe Boscoe. Joe is a breeder, collector, and peripatetic seller of butterflies, with and on behalf of his freakish family. There is something magnetic — quasi-messianic, even — about Joe, who calls Llew from his torpor rather as Jesus did his disciples, telling him: “there’s a time for reading stories and a time for making them. You read too much about other people’s lives, you forget to lead your own.”

Re-christened (literally) by Joe as “Rip Van Jones, Head of Sales & Marketing, Butterfly World”, Llew is towed in Joe’s high-speed slipstream, selling mounted rare specimens to retail outlets across the US. What follows is something between a buddie movie and a road movie, with echoes of Kerouac’s On the Road and Tom Wolfe’s account of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.

Brook has created in Joe Boscoe a literary figure of epic proportions. He is part angry prophet, challenging the “bad theology” of hypocritical religion that lines its own nest at the expense of the poor, and part snake-oil salesman in the blustering tradition of the American West.

His infectious plausibility, however, barely papers over the cracks of a crumbling, dark family history of obsession, lies, and self-delusion, in which Llew gets entangled, so that the road trip soon swerves out of control.

This is new literary territory for Brook, and his inventive, zestful take on American gothic is infectious. It makes for a wild, enjoyable ride — even if the novel’s slightly self-conscious literary conceits threaten to divert attention to the mechanics, and away from the journey itself.

The Revd Malcolm Doney is a writer, broadcaster, and Anglican priest.

The Killing of Butterfly Joe
Rhidian Brook
Picador £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

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