Beneath the Neon Egg by Thomas E Kennedy, book review: Lifebelt for a man adrift

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The Independent Culture

A literary novel must explore the human condition.

As a bonus Thomas E Kennedy throws in explorations of Copenhagen for us. Kennedy is a long-standing US resident over there, well-placed to delve into existence in the city that is the birthplace of existentialism.

This is the final part of Kennedy’s Copenhagen Quartet, though each novel can be read by itself. Beneath the Neon Egg focuses on pleasures of the flesh. Kennedy’s anti-hero is Patrick Bluett, another American expat, recently divorced and at the mercy of his clamorous libido. The story opens with a threesome between Bluett and two Danish women, and follows him as he hops from bed to bar, as much in search of intimacy (inevitably) as physical satisfaction.

Meanwhile, Bluett’s friend Sam Finglas is behaving oddly, despite a new relationship with a striking Russian woman.

Each part of the quartet is set in a different season, and by now it is winter. But whatever the time of year Kennedy’s narration is characterised by autumnal decline to the point where you might assume that melancholy is Copenhagen’s prevailing mood. This downbeat, elegaic ambience is reinforced by Bluett’s fondness for jazz. The novel’s preface consists of lyrics from John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and the music’s ecstatic soul searching becomes a motif for the story that follows.

As well as a mastery of atmosphere, Kennedy has a flair for interiority, taking us deep into Bluett’s thoughts and the solace he finds there, despite dwelling on his lost marriage and his position between cultures. Elsewhere, Kennedy relies too much on referencing lifestyle details, which run to exhaustively listing Bluett’s musical likes,  shabby chic clothes, vodka brands and furnishings. This is made to stand in for much of the heavy lifting of character depiction. It’s a shame, also, that the women in Bluett’s life remain distant to us.

And, in a novel which concerns itself with tone and texture, plot need not be a pressing concern, but Kennedy’s touch appears unsure here too. When Finglas’s relationship goes horribly wrong the novel starts to resemble a thriller, and similar genre uncertainty surfaces over whether Bluett can find a happy ending.

Nevertheless, the novel offers a fine portrait of a man adrift, his haunts becoming touchstones for his inner state – joyful, troubled, but always self-aware. The previous parts of the Quartet were well received and Beneath The Neon Egg looks set to follow.