April 20, 2006


The Road of the Dead. By Kevin Brooks. Chicken House/Scholastic. $16.99.

Candy. By Kevin Brooks. PUSH/Scholastic. $7.99.

     Kevin Brooks specializes in the ugly.  Yes, you can call his works “gritty,” or “streetwise,” or “unashamed to look at the seamy side of life,” but whatever else they may be, the simple fact is that they are forthright looks at ugliness.  Emotions always run high and raw, characters inevitably descend to the lowest possible level before (sometimes) finding themselves and emerging (somewhat) better as a result, and Brooks clearly relishes descriptions of degradation and violence, which he crafts as often as possible.  He writes well – his pacing is fast, with events tumbling over themselves so quickly that his characters never have a chance to get their bearings.  But his subject matter is so genuinely unpleasant that his books are an acquired taste that many readers in the 12-and-up target age range will not care to acquire.

     The Road of the Dead, Brooks’ latest novel, is about three siblings, of whom the eldest, 19-year-old Rachel, is brutally murdered – after being kidnapped and raped.  It is left to 17-year-old Cole and 14-year-old Ruben to search for their sister’s body and the true story of her death.  The boys are driven in different ways and by different things.  Cole is a surly, sullen type, unafraid of violence and not caring much whether he or those involved with him live or die.  Ruben is more interesting: he experiences strange sensations from those around him, feeling what they feel or connecting in some never-explained way with their souls, spirits, personalities, what-have-you.  Cole and Ruben start their trip along The Road of the Dead at their home in a junkyard in London – the emptiness of their lives telegraphed by the setting as the storminess of their tale is reflected in the weather on the night Rachel is killed.  The story takes Cole and Ruben from one depressing scene to another, climaxing as Ruben’s visions and Cole’s violent streak help the boys confront their sister’s vicious killers.  It is an undeniably effective ending, for all its sordidness.

     “Sordid” describes the life of a girl named Candy as well.  Brooks’ novel about her is now available in paperback.  Unlike The Road of the Dead, in which every character is damaged by life from the outset, Candy starts out as the story of a young boy named Joe whose life is pretty much on the right track.  True, he doesn’t care about much except his music, but Joe is basically a good (if rather vapid) guy seeking direction.  The direction he finds with Candy is, not surprisingly, downward.  Joe’s crush on Candy pulls him ever deeper into her world of drugs and desperation, and leads to a hyper-violent confrontation with a man named Iggy who represents all that is frightening in Candy’s life – and is directly responsible for much of it.  After a terrifying scene among Iggy, Candy and Joe leaves Iggy (who clearly deserves to die) very much alive and back in control, Joe’s sister, Gina, also gets pulled into the mess of Candy’s life, and it takes further violence to extricate both Gina and Joe.  But there is no happy ending here, and no sense that Joe has learned much from the whole experience – except that the world is a darker and more dangerous place than he ever thought it was.  That seems to be the primary lesson of all Brooks’ novels.

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