“We are each our own devil,” Oscar Wilde once remarked, “and we make this world our hell.”
It sounds like a Bad Seeds lyric, but it’s also more or less the unwritten epigraph to Nick Cave’s new book, The Death of Bunny Munro. While Cave is better known for his music than his prose, he’s a surprisingly gifted, if slightly deranged, author. Bunny Munro is Cave’s second novel since his 1989 debut, And the Ass Saw the Angel, and if his new book holds any autobiographical credibility, Cave has spent those years schooling himself in the ways of prodigious drinking, nonstop fucking, and generalized depravity. But then, this probably isn’t a fair statement. He seemed pretty well versed in all that long before.
The Death of Bunny Munro is the only book I can think of that has drawn comparisons to both the New Testament (from Cave) and Faust (from Cave’s publisher). The novel’s title character is an oblivious study in failure: A traveling salesman who hawks beauty products, Bunny spends his days driving around the English coast seducing bored housewives and cultivating the aesthetic of a washed-up lounge singer. After his wife commits suicide, Bunny is left to care for his son, Bunny Jr., a nervous and awkward 9-year-old with a fondness for reading the encyclopedia. From the opening pages on, Bunny Sr. inhabits a hell of his own creation, floating between dingy hotel rooms on a demented, drug-fueled quest to find the Platonic vagina. (According to Bunny, who spends a great deal of time thinking about the matter, it belongs to either Avril Lavigne or Cave’s “Where The Wild Roses Grow” collaborator Kylie Minogue.) The novel begins with a rare moment of lucidity in one such hotel room – he’s on the phone with his wife while a prostitute lingers in the background – and continues until Bunny’s eventual, and much-anticipated, death. From points A to B, the book tracks Munro’s downfall with disturbing and hilarious precision, providing a literary voice for what Cave calls the “running sexual commentary in my head.”
Bunny Munro is divided into three sections: Cocksman, Salesman, and Deadman. While the first two parts document Bunny’s absurd and ecstatic conquests, the latter part follows his epic decline, culminating in a series of beatings and a final scene I won’t describe in case my mother ever reads this review. Cave relishes the tragicomedy of Bunny’s self-destruction and, as our hero falls, the narrative revels in his decline: “His sour and sodden clothes, the metallic stench of abject terror and the bouquet of his own substantial hangover form a force field around him. He also looks like a maniac. He feels a real sense of achievement that he has managed to cross the lobby in the manner of a biped and not on all fours.”
In a recent interview, Cave described the book’s literary template as a cross between the Gospel of Mark and the SCUM Manifesto, the “beautiful but hate-filled rant” by Valerie Solanas, the radical feminist who shot Andy Warhol. That Cave somehow makes this work is a feat unto itself, but I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
While the lyricism of Cave’s writing is often hard to square with Bunny’s obscenity — this is one of those books that’s more than a little embarrassing to read on the bus — Cave attempts to pull it off with carefully calibrated levels of detachment and empathy. The novel’s wager is that no matter how repellent Bunny can be, and this is saying a lot, redemption is never outside the realm of possibility. But remember: This is redemption à la Nick Cave, meaning that when it comes, it comes in the form of an imagined reunion with all the women Bunny has wronged; a religious revival of sorts, replete with a three-piece band and tuxedoed MC.
In the end, Bunny pins his hopes for salvation on Bunny Jr., a boy who develops Buddhist levels of patience while spending his days in the back of the family Fiat. Junior’s habit of looking up words (“apparition,” “visitation,” “near-death experience”) proves prescient, and as the boy goes blind for lack of eyedrops, he comes to serve as his father’s seer. Ultimately, from his vantage point in the back seat (itself a form of hell) Junior is able to see what his father can’t: that heaven and hell are often one in the same. This may not be the strongest conclusion, but it’s something, I suspect, that Cave figured out the hard way. •