By Daniel Vlasaty
Savage Town is the book that I have been anticipating most this year. Which is kind of funny when you think about it, mainly because I had no fucking idea what the thing was about before I started reading it. I was mainly excited about it because Declan Shalvey's name was attached to it and as a writer no less. But also it was the name – Savage Town's a great title – and the cover. I mean look at that cover. It's a beautiful fucking thing. It’s a cover that doesn't give one single thing about the book away, but it's also a cover that – for me, at least – leads me to want to know what the book's about. I've said this before in a past review: we're told not to judge books by their cover, but the truth is that we do. I know I definitely judge books by their covers (and I know that the saying is more about people than it is about book, but just run with me here). And this one got me all kinds of excited.
Before we even get into the book, I want to focus on the cover for another second. Just look at the cover. Look at it. The first thing I think about when I see it is a tough guy. I don’t know what he's all about because his face is just tiger-stripes, but I know he's a badass. He has to be. Look how he's standing with his hands in his pockets. Look at his popped collar. That's the stance and image of one bad motherfucker. It's just a great cover. The colors are beautiful, but that shouldn’t be surprising because Jordie Bellaire does the colors in Savage Town, and her shit is the best in the business.
But what about the story. Savage Town is a story that falls into a category I call quiet crime stories. It's a crime story, but that's not all it is. It's also a slice-of-life story as well as a drama. And a pretty solid character study, too. It's a story that's more about the people involved in it, the characters, and even the town of Limerick, than it is about any crime or crimes in general. There is plenty of criminal shit that happens in the story, so don't let the explanation above scare you off or anything. Because it works here. These are characters with long and involved pasts. They have histories and hope and dreams. It's interesting to me, probably because I also write crime fiction – and my stories tend to also be about the same types of people that Shalvey is writing about here (bad people doing bad things) – but, overall, everyone one of these characters is a terrible person on some level. But I still found myself rooting for them and relating to them, and just genuinely caring about the things that happen to them. It is this that tells me Savage Town is a well-written story. Because it's the writing, the presentation of it, that brings these characters to life, that allows there to be a connection between them and the readers.
The story itself is a simple one, and I am not going to ruin it by explaining it in too much detail here. But like I said, it's not really about any one thing. It's about a lot of things, some big and some small, but they all come together to create a vivid and original and personal world. Basically you have a group of people that operate on the opposite side of the law. It's about a "gang," although calling them a gang might not be the best way to describe them – because they're kind of a fucking mess. They're run by Jimmy Savage. They call themselves the Savage Boys. But the Savage Boys are the small fish in the town of Limerick's small criminal pond. There are two much bigger, more powerful, more organized operations that basically run the show. But Jimmy's got plans and he's out to make his name and his gang bigger in the underworld. He doesn’t want to be a fucking joke anymore.
The book actually reads like a Guy Ritchie movie. It's funny and it's weird and it's pretty much just about a dude that's in over his head and trying to pretend he's not. It questions a man's place in his family, in his community, in the world as a whole, really. Or actually the criminal underworld. It's about dreams and plans and goals. It's about trying your hardest not to fuck up but still fucking up anyway, and just figuring it out as you go. It's a personal story. A personable story. I can relate to these characters. Even if I'm not part of any criminal underworld anymore. I know these guys - and girls – because, to a certain extent, I used to be them. I know what they dream of and what they want and what they're willing to do to get it. They are simple characters but there is still a lot to them.
Philip Barrett does the art in Savage Town. I am not familiar with him and think this is probably the first time I've seen his stuff. I think I had kind of been hoping that Shalvey would do some of the art. Mainly because I love his style. But I think Barrett's art fits the story well. I would call his style kind of playful and bold. The lines are solid and heavy. It's almost overly simple, but in a good way. It captures the mood and tone of the story perfectly. I also feel like the art really adds to the sense of place. It really brings us down into this world. This is a place I would otherwise probably never see or experience. But the way it's captured in the art made it feel familiar and not like another country entirely. And then there's Jordie Bellaire's colors, which I shouldn’t really even waste the words to say that they are, as always, goddamn amazing. They're solid here. And bright and drab. All at the same time.
Savage Town met my expectations fully. And probably bypassed them, too. It's among my top books for the year. (And, yes, I'm aware I've already said that countless times this year – but I'm just saying that if I were to try to come up with a list of, like, say my top five books it would be really fucking hard to narrow it down). This is the perfect book to read on a dreary, rainy afternoon. I wouldn’t call this a depressing book, kind of but not really. Just that it's true to life. I'm left with the strong feeling that there's no way in fuck things work out for any of these characters in the long run. And that's okay. Because that's life. It doesn't work out all that good for any of us at the end.