The stabbing of a 16-year-old boy on a London estate quickly accumulates a grim spectrum of opportunities for the characters in Charles Harris’s darkly humorous broadside of a thriller. The boy’s surname is one of many ironies; nothing here is transparent, with printed media the focus of the author’s contempt.
Such a view is understandable; from hacking the phones of murder victims to channelling Nazi Germany, the ‘popular press’ has less and less real-world traction, thrashing viciously on its long, demented slide into irrelevance. ‘The Breaking of Liam Glass’ presents a roadside view of this loathsome journey as time-serving politicians, public relations gurus grown fat on abuse and community leaders no one in the community has heard of struggle to come up with the right position on the tragedy to advance their interests.
What lends Liam’s story its utility is the idea that his father might be a Premiership footballer. The boy’s chain-smoking mother, Katrina, may have sufficient decency not to divulge the truth; equally, she might be too traumatised by the mysterious attack on her son to process the nonsense that attends it. Unfortunately, there is also a strong possibility that she is insane, as visions of Liam prompt Katrina with ever-increasing urgency to take matters into her own hands. Katrina is a great character, whose well-etched relationship with her cannier mother is another source of desperate humour.
However, our main point of view character is loser journo Jason, about to be ditched from his job on the local ‘Herald’ as efficiently as he was ditched from his marriage and contact with his beloved little daughter, Bea. The author has a lot of fun with Jason’s ‘problematic’ character. The journalist is a flawed, cunning everyman whose miserable fate is as much the contrivance of bad luck and the absurdities of contemporary existence as it is his faithless personality. Like all good narratives, every beat adds pressure to the protagonist as Jason lies, swindles and schmoozes his way towards an opportunity with the prestigious ‘Post’ and sufficient income to impress both his daughter and still-yearned-for ex-wife. On the way, he is beaten, arrested, run over and subjected to the kind of moral soul-searching that would break someone less sociopathic.
Jason’s character would have been even more compelling had he been an out-and-out scumbag instead of a half-in/half-out one. His determination to launch a national campaign to combat knife crime feels phoney, as do the sequences where we are meant to feel he is conflicted about what he is doing, as if the author is apologising for him. There’s no need; Martin Amis in ‘London Fields’ and Tom Wolfe in ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ showed that readers don’t care about characters being likeable. While few of us are actual psychopaths, the endless saccharine clichés of the Internet, witless ‘reality’ TV and a printed press regime with the coherence of a pissed uncle shouting at lorries means we are happy with a darker sensibility so long as it is honest. For the most part, however, this novel hits that difficult bass note; particularly with the central conspiracy cooked up by Jason and his associates when Katrina persists with her inconvenient, dazed integrity. It’s so good I want to reveal it here, but you don’t want review spoilers in a story like this.
Suffice to say that it is not in any of the characters’ interest to take the moral path. This unhappy truth extends to decent bodybuilder Royland, whose girlfriend Sade is a whip-like nightmare of stilettoes, attitude and brains. Royland’s conscience is not a calculated thing, which makes him stand out in the world of the novel, but also makes him as vulnerable in his own way as Liam himself. Royland’s physical strength counts against him as much as his colour (he is black), to the extent when he does do the right thing, the cultural assumptions of passers-by place the big-hearted giant in real jeopardy.
He is not completely removed from his corrosive environment, though. His body-building includes steroids and the exercise itself has an addictive quality. Indeed, the theme of addiction runs through this novel with the strength of a hit; from the self-destructive sentiment of Jason’s once-legendary editor to Katrina’s chain-smoking and the attention craved by Jamila, the hopeless councillor. But it’s Jason who squanders his chance to walk away from this horror and get everything he has told us he wants, unable to resist the great journalistic game regardless of how degraded it now is. The comparison must be the compelling lure of ‘news’; a reality we yearn to believe in even though we know it’s fake. Like Liam Glass and those like him unfortunate enough to be caught up in it, the news is ‘breaking’ all the time, regardless of the resulting damage. This novel is a kaleidoscope held up to that blinding reality and spun, the emerging patterns cut in the darkest shades.