The Glass Kingdom
Like his debut A Tiger in Eden, Chris Flynn’s second novel is one hinged on voice. Unlike the first, however, The Glass Kingdom boasts three. There is Benjamin, a deeply damaged Afghan war veteran whose Target Ball stand at a carnival touring regional Victoria is a front for a much more lucrative trade in crystal meth; his young employee Mikey, a gangsta-rapping, Fremantle Dockers fan who has an eye to “skip out” with a handful of Benjamin’s takings; and, for a few pages in between these two halves of the novel, Huy, a fellow carnival worker who is introduced, solely it seems, to give the reader Benjamin’s grim backstory.
It is Benjamin’s voice, the most muted of the three, that takes us through the first half of the novel, and the picture he paints of life at the carnival and as a regional meth kingpin is not only unglamorous but fairly banal. Thankfully there are moments of humour, mostly generated by Benjamin’s relationship with his young protégé, and the “mad flow” Mikey (aka Mekong Delta) insists on trying out on his boss. This dynamic prompts comparisons to television’s Breaking Bad, because Benjamin’s inability to communicate with or even understand his hot-headed apprentice is so reminiscent of Walter White’s struggle with the similarly doomed Jesse Pinkman. Flynn overcomes the sense of indebtedness as he establishes the authentic detail and unique character of the Australian crystal meth pandemic.
After a brief interlude with the expository Huy (“Voltan, Master of Electricity”), whose broad vaudevillian voice is a tonal misstep, the book switches to Mikey’s perspective. His surreal, ADHD, pop-culture saturated and hip-hop inflected voice injects the second half of the book with some much- needed energy. This drug-addled screw-up proves to be both smarter than he lets on – his schooling of fellow small-town meth heads on the errors of their jingoistic attitudes is especially funny – and an utterly inept fugitive.
That the most dynamic voice of the novel appears at page 121 means ultimately The Glass Kingdom is not a wholly satisfying novel. This is a shame because Flynn’s facility for the nuance of patois and neologism makes him well suited to the task of bringing this Australian tragedy to life in fiction. As it is, it’s uneven, and the multiple voices only serve to dilute a story that might have been more effectively told with just one. SH
Text, 256pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 7, 2014 as "The Glass Kingdom, Chris Flynn". Subscribe here.