Nick Cave’s career as a novelist began in 1989 with the publication of And the Ass Saw the Angel. Cave is mostly known as a goth punk rocker who’s done murderous duets with PJ Harvey and Kylie Minogue, yet he’s become a neo-Leonard Cohen — born to the literary canon, but lured by the rock world. While his second novel probably won’t establish him with the likes of Nabokov (who Cave steals so nicely from in “The Loom of the Land”), his newest novel The Death of Bunny Munro is a far cry from his first, a Southern Gothic as imagined by an Aussie musician living in Berlin. The characters in And the Ass Saw the Angel were not of our time/space continuum, while The Death of Bunny Munro is very much grounded in our current reality.
The anti-hero of Cave’s second novel is Bunny Munro, a sex-obsessed “cocksman” who doesn’t fantasize about the lovely faces or minds of women. He doesn’t even fantasize about their tits; all he can think about are their vaginas. Like a primordial Freudian beast, the only thing he wants to do is dive back in. Bunny’s imagination is as limited as his client list (he’s a door-to-door cosmetics salesman); the author’s imagination is, on the other hand, as fecund as ever. Bunny is a “monster,” admits Nick Cave, but Bunny’s also Everyman.
The novel begins:
“I am damned,” thinks Bunny Munro.
But you’ll be disappointed if you’re expecting the sort of gothic hyperbole that made Cave’s music from the 1990’s so seminal (for the uninitiated, think the Decemberists meets Flannery O’Connor). This is 21st century Nick Cave: postmodern, married, trying to live a clean(ish) life. The novel is dedicated to his wife and could be seen as an apology for philandering husbands everywhere.
Yes, there’s a serial killer who resembles Satan on the loose, along with an array of sleazy, memorable supporting characters, like the “murderous grandmother.” But what really keeps the pages turning in this story is the reader’s driving curiosity about the death in the title, and the fact that Bunny Munro also has a son. When his wife’s suicide puts him in charge of Bunny Junior, who is 9, Bunny Senior is forced to look beneath the surface of his solipsistic life and see that his actions have consequences. He tries to numb himself with booze, coke and women, but emotions still needle him. When he does feel rage, it’s epic. He’s pissed at his wife who, “even beyond the grave hunts him down in order to wag a defamatory finger.” He resents “his spaced-out kid waiting in the car,” his dying father, and even “the fucking bees and starlings.” Poor Bunny Junior has an eye condition desperately requiring eye drops. Throughout the father and son’s journey, Bunny Junior never quite manages to ask his father for the drops — or at least not assertively enough to get them. The son adores his father and we wonder if maybe in a son’s love a father can find redemption.
Nick Cave’s musical career began with the post-punk band the Birthday Party, which evolved into the Bad Seeds, when the anarchy became more controlled. 1990’s The Good Son is about rehab (long before Amy Winehouse), marking a shift in both Cave’s private and professional life, and the releases after that secured his position as a goth icon. After the brilliant literary vignettes of 1995’s Murder Ballads, Cave took another turn in his maturation as an artist. Strange occurrences and biblical overtones remained, but his flawed heroes became real, modern men with normal domestic concerns (albeit with the occasional phantom seen from the corner of the eye). Bunny Munro is one of those modern heroes, admittedly more a Bukowski rat than an Updike Rabbit. Bunny is a timeless bloke lost in the modern world, trying to do the right thing and to find some kind of contentment.
Bunny Munro fantasizes about Avril Lavigne and Kylie Minogue, is creeped out by the Teletubbies, and is dogged by a story of a masked horned serial killer with a trident being played out in the background on the ever-playing news channel. The secondary characters are beautifully written in Cave’s preacher-man cadence, but amount to little in the end. There are too many nouns-turned-verbs: he “deranges the room,” she is “goblinned” by her eyeliner. Portends abound, Bunny knows somehow that he’s going to die, yet otherwise he’s not very self-aware.
Something grievous has resided in [Bunny’s] face that he is amazed to see adds to his general magnetism. There is an intensity to his eyes that was not there before — a tragic light — that he feels has untold potential, and he shoots the mirror a sad, emotive smile and is aghast at his new-found pulling power. He tries to think of a papped celebrity who has been visited by some great tragedy and come out the other side looking better as a result, but can’t think of one. This makes him feel mega-potent, ultra-capable and super-human, all at the same time.
Only Bunny doesn’t seem to see the similarities between himself and the killer. Both are absurd yet terrifying. There’s a schism between how Bunny Munro sees himself and how the world sees him. This becomes increasingly obvious until, in true Nick Cave fashion, everything culminates in a terrible and darkly funny end.