Much like Joe Bosco himself, the Butterfly Joe of the title, Rhidian Brook’s latest novel is a bit of an enigma. Part travelogue, part mystery, part lyrical ballad, part fact and part fantasy, The Killing of Butterfly Joe is a boldly unique book with an adventure story at its core – an adventure built on the roads of 1980s America in pursuit of inspiration, riches and the Great American Dream.
Welshman Llew Jones’ story begins in the Catskill Mountains of New York state, where he’s whiling away his time in America by reading, smoking and thinking about maybe writing a novel, when Joe Bosco barges into his life. What begins as a challenge turns into a friendship, a business relationship and an introduction to the eclectic Bosco family, from the scarred and cynical matriarch Edith through to sun-and-moon sisters, the desirable Mary and the quiet Isabelle.
From the moment he meets the Boscos, Llew is intrigued and entranced; they offer him an adventure, a chance to experience new things, and he takes it, giving himself over to their life as easily as washing away his old life in a baptism of Coca-Cola. But the deeper Llew gets into the Bosco family and the business of selling butterflies, the more out of control the journey gets. Which is how Llew ends up in prison, jailed for something he says he didn’t do, and telling his side of the story in a bid to earn back his freedom.
“For a few moments I experienced what it must be like to be Joe – to be the Cat In The Hat – starting something and having to keep going lest everything collapse for the stopping. Joe had taught me well. The Cat In The Hat has begat another cat.”
Summing up The Killing of Butterfly Joe is not an easy thing to do. Going by the blurb, it’s “an existential road trip”, a “neo-gothic thriller” and a “morality tale” at the same time, and that’s before you even dig into the Bosco family saga, or even the coming-of-age elements of Llew’s own narrative (if you can call the experiences of a 24-year-old getting to grips with some of the harsher realities of life coming-of-age). Like its subject matter, its telling is also a mish-mash of styles, opening with an epigraph from Dr Seuss and breaking up the narrative into chapters introduced with verses and concluded with dialogue from inside Llew’s prison cell.
Once you get past the quieter, slower and more speculative opening, however, and start coming to grips with the larger-than-life personality that is Joe Bosco, it becomes a little easier to digest and infinitely more enjoyable to read. It helps, too, that Llew is an easy character to get behind; you may not exactly like him or his actions all of the time, but you can empathise with him as a man who finds himself completely out of his depth from more or less the first page and never quite manages to reach shallower waters.
But the biggest joy of this novel is in the brilliantly teased out sense of dread that starts the moment you pick up the book and read the title. “I killed Joe once, in a manner of speaking,” Llew says. “But not twice. Not in the way you mean.” With each new chapter and each new adventure Llew, Joe and the different members of his family go on, the mystery surrounding the death of Butterfly Joe only becomes a bigger question that needs answering, serving as a constant deadly reminder through even the whooping highs and the subdued, intimate moments of life on the road. Something is going to go wrong, somewhere, and Rhidian Brook proves himself a master at walking that line between letting the reader getting so caught up in the narrative that they forget that, and then reminding them of the inevitability of it all without warning once again.
There’s no denying that The Killing of Butterfly Joe can be a difficult novel to get into. It’s a grand story, told in the gentle reveals of the day-by-day, and is just slow enough to make reading feel like a bit of a chore at times. But it’s also a beautiful story, and beautifully told too. Brook is writing from experience here, and his love, awe and wonder for the great American landscapes are palpable on every page. This novel is an adventure in every sense of the word – slow to start, sometimes difficult to see through, but worth it in the end.
The Killing of Butterfly Joe is published by Picador on 8 March 2018