Beginning in the spooky Catskill Mountains and roaming across 1980’s America, Rhidian Brook’s latest novel - The Killing of Butterfly Joe – is part gothic thriller, part existential road trip, part morality tale. It’s also a story about selling, about the road that leads ‘from rags to riches via pitches.’ Despite its extraordinary setting and events the novel was inspired by a job its author had thirty years ago...
When I was 23 I had a job selling butterflies in glass cases in America. I worked for a guy who, as well as being a butterfly salesman, had ambitions to be America’s first Pope (an ambition he ditched on account of him wanting to marry). I drove all over the US and sold in 32 states. It was 1987 and was pre-internet and pre-mobile phone, which increased the sensation of having an adventure in a land far, far away. I was not a novelist at the time but I told myself that I had to write about these butterflying days if I could. And so I did – 30 years later.
The story is narrated by a Llewellyn Jones, a young Welshman who has come to see America and write about it. An encounter with the tale’s eponymous hero in the Kaaterskill Falls enables Llew to do both – just not in the way he expected. Butterfly salesman Joe Bosco, offers Llew a job and promises to show him. ‘Follow me and I’ll give you a whole book to write.’ And so Llew (now re-named Rip Van Jones) embarks on an epic adventure with Joe and his eccentric butterfly-selling family. It’s a journey that sees him hurtling across 1980’s America, and having the experiences of which he dreamed; but it’s a road that leads to trouble. Joe is as exasperating as he is charismatic. A cross between The Cat In The Hat and Zorba (the Greek): an untameable, creative/destructive maverick. A man of faith but not religious, fearless in taking on the idols of American culture – not least the religious establishment. At some point you feel that all these plates he’s set spinning are going to come crashing down – and this they do with great noise.
The novel is set in the 1980’s but I have aimed for a deliberate timelessness in the tale, playing with the Rip van Winkle motif. It’s turned out to be something of a love letter to America – my narrator is in thrall to the glorious energy and enthusiasm of its people, the power and natural wonder of the land, before waking up to its darker side, its false promises, tacky materialism, the violence lying beneath the smiles. There is an arm wrestle throughout the tale between comedy and tragedy, and I have tried to keep the reader guessing which one wins right to the end.
The Killing of Butterfly Joe by Rhidian Brook is published March 8th by Picador.
Rhidian Brook’s previous novel, The Aftermath, is an international bestseller and has been made into a film starring Keira Knightley and Alexander Skarsgaard by Fox Searchlight. It will be released later this year.