O’Brien (Wild Decembers, 2001, etc.) offers a grimly fascinating portrait of a young Irish psychopath, delivered in a flat and unaffected prose reminiscent of a police dossier.
This is not the story of a poor boy from the slums who never had a chance. Michen O’Kane grew up in the Irish countryside among respectable folk who were far from rich but wanted for very little. His mother died while he was quite young, and he was raised mostly by his older sister Aileen. Early on, he developed a reputation as a troublemaker, to such an extent that the other children grew terrified of him and the grownups nicknamed him the “Kindershreck.” At ten, he broke into a house, found a rifle, and tried to shoot a passing neighbor. He was sent to a detention center, where he was brutalized by the inmates and staff alike until he ran away and was taken in by a kindly farmer’s family. They offered to adopt him, and had even begun the formal application to do so, when they discovered that the boy was secretly murdering kittens and other farm animals behind their backs. Another round of psychiatrists and juvenile reformatories did little good: Eventually Michen made his way to England, where he did a stint in jail for mugging an old lady while disguised as a priest. The climax of his story is a triple murder that he commits in a deserted forest, but this is described obliquely, in the manner of a Greek tragedy, according to the testimony of the victims as well as of Michen himself and various witnesses and bystanders. O’Brien makes good use of very brief, impressionistic chapters that convey a sense of immediacy and offer a vivid yet somewhat distant account of a highly lurid tale (which is, in fact, based on a true event).
At once rich and chilling: one of O’Brien’s darkest, most accomplished works in years.