Kingdom by Russ Litten (Wrecking Ball Press, 2015)
In his third novel, Kingdom, Russ Litten departs not only from the previous gritty crime thriller genre of his previous two novels, but also manages to depart reality and take us all with him. He really is a master storyteller. The eponymous Kingdom crashes into our consciousness as the assailant of a warder in a prison library. Once subdued, authorities can find no record of him. He is placed in a cell with a man, whose role it is to listen.
Litten uses this conceit to unfurl the complex and gripping story of Kingdom, a man who was ‘born a ghost.’ Kingdom unburdens himself to The Listener. He tells how he awoke in a derelict house and to discover he had no form, no physical presence, and no recognition of all that we take for granted within our five senses.
But as the story unfolds it produces many clues and diversions as to who or what Kingdom is, or was, and indeed will be. But I can tell you now you will never guess. You think you know where Litten’s taking you, but you are wrong. Trust me.
Litten mixes powerful narrative and brilliant dialogue to produce a novel that works both as a tale and a philosophical exposition …but not like any philosophical treatise I’ve ever read.
The reader gets to sit with the frightened, formless creature in the derelict house, follow him as his fleets unseen, unsleeping and uncertain through the days and the nights that lead to his prison library appearance in full physical being.
The journey from formless creature to prison hard case provides the most unlikely platform for a type of dark humour at which Litten excels. During ‘Kingdom’s hauntings’ we are served a series of diverse characters. In the student house he makes his second home he meets and falls in love with Gemma, but of course he cannot make his feelings or indeed his presence known. Kingdom’s observation of the students’ wine and dope fuelled lives at 37 Buckingham Street are high comedy and sharp observation of the highest order. As a ghost story it is a kind of cross between The Young Ones and M. R. James.
Kingdom also attaches himself to a small abused boy called Ryan and guises as the child’s imaginary pal, Al.
Kingdom then plots an horrific vengeance on Beaumont, the ‘bastard stepdad’ who terrorises the kid. In this, Litten reveals another of his talents, the ability to create an ocean going shithouse of a character for whom you can feel nothing but contempt.
When you find out who Kingdom is, was and might be, it will shake you and explain much of his behaviour and reasoning. Litten has created a magic realism equal to a Gabriel Garcia Marquez tale. Kingdom’s period of solitude, Litten’s examination and building of a man and his spirit in this page-turning fast-paced story is one of the more unique books I have read.
The twist in this gripping tale is the sort of thing that M, Night Shyamalan could oh-so-easily ruin!