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1188 words
SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Kerrigan in Copenhagen: A Love Story
by Thomas E. Kennedy

Reviewed by Duff Brenna

Bloomsbury (2013)

Cover of Kerrigan in Copenhagen by Thomas E. Kennedy

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In spirit, Kennedy’s third novel in the series called The Copenhagen Quartet is a love letter to Denmark, his adopted country.

Here he will clothe himself in its thousand years of history, let its wounds be his wounds, let its poets’ songs fill his soul, ...its drink temper his reason...its light and art and nature...wrap themselves about him and keep him safe from chaos. (1)

A fictional narrative disguised as a guide to Copenhagen’s serving houses, Kerrigan in Copenhagen takes place (partly) in numerous bars with names such as Wine Room 90, The Railway Inn, The Stick, Axelborg Bodega, The Palace Bar (the list would fill a page). Kerrigan, “...has been roaming since midmorning while sampling pints here and there” (4). He enters Wine Room 90, “ elegant old establishment” (7) opened in 1916, in order to have another pint and also to meet his Research Associate. She is a handsome woman, fifty-seven years old, who was stunningly beautiful in her youth, and remains beautiful in Kerrigan’s eyes. He is paying her to provide notable backdrops referencing “ hundred of the best, the most historic, the most congenial of Copenhagen’s 1,525 serving houses” (6). From their research together, he will write a travel guide called The Great Bars of the Western World.

Throughout the rest of the day and evening the two of them journey from serving house to serving house, telling each other stories about their lives, while intermittently noting historical facts and lore about Copenhagen, including insights and biographical information concerning the city’s famous writers, philosophers, politicians and more. It is a clever plotline revealing the pulse of the throbbing city, while also boasting of its world famous citizens (Kierkegaard, Hans Christian Anderson, Knut Hamsun, etc.) whose great accomplishments apparently energize the vibrant couple, Kerrigan and his companion increasingly infatuated with each other, and perhaps easing into a love affair, which is the last thing he wants—or so he thinks.

Days later, he makes a side trip to Dublin, where we are provided information about a handful of its famous pubs—Davy Byrnes, The Temple Bar, Anna Livia Lounge, and many other historical landmarks. We are also given a quick sketch concerning Dublin’s history connecting it with Denmark and the Danish Vikings who settled the city more than a thousand years ago.

What holds Kerrigan’s wanderings together are not only his musings on each establishment he visits, but his memories about his wife leaving him for another man. She took Kerrigan’s daughter to God knows where and left a note that said: “I’m so sorry. I don’t love you” (37). She also took half of his inheritance. Then disappeared totally, maybe to America, he doesn’t have a clue. He wrestles with her betrayal, never quite understanding why she stopped loving him. He believes he wants nothing more to do with love. Sex yes. Love no.

But then he finds himself longing for the company of his associate. In fact, she is the main reason why he goes to Dublin. He needs to get away from her and gather his thoughts. Can he fall in love again? Does he dare take a chance? Maybe it’s best just to get drunk and put his mind to work on the influences surrounding his muddled existence— the buildings, the streets, a thousand poets, novelists, painters, musicians who lived long before he was ever born.

But then, what is life without love? Empty. Probably pointless. Certainly soulless.

Repeating what his ex said to him, “Blind,” she repeated with drunken deliberateness. “Blind!” (61), he wonders what she meant. Years after she said it he still doesn’t know. But he does know he doesn’t want to go through anything like that again—love shriveling into contempt, even hatred. Kerrigan despairs of ever understanding anything about himself or women or God or life’s purpose.

Kennedy uses a poetically amorous tone that suffuses Kerrigan’s confused contemplations throughout the book, a tone expressive of his state of mind mitigated more and more as he surrenders himself (finally) to the spirit of Copenhagen written on the first page, lines made breathless with tenderness and yearning:

Here he has made his home, in a city whose moods are unpredictable, unfathomable, unimpeachable as a woman’s, often still and dark, perfidious as its April weather—now light and sweet as the touch of a summer cold as snow, false as ice, merciless as the howling, beating wind, now quietly enigmatic as the stirring of the great chestnut trees which line the banks of the lake beneath his windows. (1)

Kerrigan’s journey is clearly modeled on the meanderings of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in that monstrous masterpiece of 1922 called Ulysses. But Kerrigan’s travels take place over several weeks, rather than the 18+ hours that James Joyce gave Bloom and Dedalus. Still, the homage to Ulysses works shrewdly—the extra days give Kennedy plenty of elbowroom to move his characters from location to location, filling the reader’s mind with historical particulars that pour from a vast reservoir of knowledge about Copenhagen, Dublin, and environs—knowledge that is both comprehensive and occasionally astonishing. The research needed to write a novel as ambitious as Kerrigan in Copenhagen staggers the mind.

Kerrigan is a rich read from beginning to end and would reward anyone who wanted to peruse it a second time, or even a third. One comes away from the book knowing that a large, lyrical and intricate intellect created Kerrigan’s world. This is the work about which David Applefield, the editor of Frank magazine in Paris said, [Kennedy] “...places Copenhagen on a level with Joyce’s Dublin.” Joyce claimed that Dublin might be rebuilt from what he shoehorned into Ulysses. I’ve taught several seminars on Joyce and I don’t believe what he said is possible. Dublin could not be rebuilt by following the guidelines in Ulysses. I don’t think engineers could rebuild Copenhagen from the information in Kennedy’s book either, but they might be able to construct several of the serving houses whose essentials he lovingly details. It is no exaggeration to say that in Kennedy’s capable hands Copenhagen comes alive as convincingly and intimately as Joyce’s Dublin.

Earlier in Kerrigan, we are shifted from history lessons regarding the city, to thoughts about writing as a craft. Kerrigan waxes philosophical about how writers of fiction create the appearance of reality—verisimilitude. He says that writers create an illusion that gets readers to suspend their disbelief “long enough to listen and experience what the writer wants to transmit” (30). Beneath or between the lines, Kennedy claims the stuff of truth can be found, “a deeper reality...that can help us understand something about human existence...fiction is not existence, but about existence” (31). These perceptions lie at the core of what Kennedy conveys throughout all the mighty books which comprise The Copenhagen Quartet: “The consciousness of a man starving to express itself” (31). So far his consciousness has done exactly that. And done it with consummate beauty and style.


—Previously published in South Carolina Review (Fall 2013)


SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Duff Brenna

is the author of six novels, and recipient of an AWP Award for Best Novel (The Book of Mamie), a National Endowment for the Arts Award, a South Florida Sun-Sentinel Award for Favorite Book of the year (The Altar of the Body), a Milwaukee Magazine Best Short Story of the Year Award, a Pushcart Honorable Mention—and, most recently, a 2013 Indie Book Award (Minnesota Memoirs was chosen as Winner in the Short Story category).

Brenna’s latest books include a memoir, Murdering the Mom (Wordcraft of Oregon, 2012), and a collection of short stories, Minnesota Memoirs (Serving House Books, 2012).

His novel, The Holy Book of the Beard, which he says is one of his favorites, was re-released in 2010 (New American Press). A New York Times review of this book says, “It is loaded with all the ingredients of an underground is nearly impossible to put down.”

Brenna’s stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Cream City Review, SQ, Agni, The Nebraska Review, The Literary Review, The Madison Review, New Letters, and numerous other literary venues. His work has been translated into six languages.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury