Forty pages into J.J. Connolly’s Layer Cake, I felt like I was reading a fleshed-out script co-authored by Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie. The action (and honestly, forty pages in, there was as yet little real action) takes place in the violent underworld of the English illicit drug trade, but the thugs we eavesdrop on speak in a wonderful crime cant about the most petty, real-life issues. Like in a Tarantino movie, there is a lot of talk, and much of it occurs over food or drink, and most of it is NOT about the heist or job itself, but about other, more mundane subjects. The dialogue, frequently humorous and very often obscene, nevertheless sometimes sparks with lightning flashes of insight and philosophy.
My favorite example of this is one of the characters, a man by no means displaying any hint that he is otherwise enlightened, informs the men around him that, “your intelligence, your imagination, and your integrity are yours and yours alone.” I found this a golden little nugget of wisdom, indeed.
Many of the book’s more civilized thoughts come from our main character, whose inner-monologue we get to overhear since the story is told in first person. He makes simple yet spot-on observations about men’s motivations, vanities, and stupidities– such as this one: ”Everybody likes to walk through a door marked private.” Of course we do!
As so often in this type of story, the main character is soon getting out of the business. His a very moderate bloke. Sure, he deals in drugs, but he doesn’t over-sample his own product. Nearing thirty years old (his self-imposed retirement date), he has never gone in, like some of the others, for gaudily flaunting his untaxed wealth. He prefers to keep his head down and his risks relatively low. He moves about his work dispassionately and competently, responsible but not overly ambitious, merely attempting to keep his corner of the ratnest “neat and tidy.” His “golden rule” is to stay as far away from the end-user of his poison as possible.
Forty pages in, there is already a fair-sized cast of tough-guy characters– so much so that I realized only too late that I should have been paying closer attention– the men begin to blend together in my (faulty) memory of who is who and who has which quirks and backgrounds and work habits. Ah yes… work habits… for our main character, a man’s work habits are just about the most important thing to know about someone– especially if he’s a man you’re considering doing business with or one already working with you.
Nevertheless, with all this going for it, I put the book down after two score pages. There was just not enough there to pull me in and make me want to turn the page and find out what happens next. I’m very impatient with books which are largely based on style, as this one is. Once I’ve absorbed the style, its wonder wears off, and I become squirmy on the hook, and will quite often begin bookworming my way out.
I have a large quota of books to read, and so I suppose some part of me is always looking for a reason to STOP reading book, not to keep reading it. Somewhere in the back of my head a little voice is always whispering, “memento mori…” Remember you must die… And there are miles (of print) to go before you sleep…