Dangerous Games, by James Butler, Little Island, 224 pp, €10, ISBN: 978-1910411919
“It’s like we’re lying in a giant green frying pan.”
So goes the opening line of James Butler’s urban young adult novel, spoken by Rory, the closest confidant to the novel’s main character, Kevin, who has just turned fourteen years old. Rory has no idea how right he is. Kevin and Rory are indeed in a frying pan, and just outside of the pan is the fire.
The opening page goes on to relate that most loved slice of macabre science, that if you put a frog in a pot of cold water and heat it up gradually, the frog will sit in it and simply boil to death. The theme of Butler’s novel is effectively laid out. Kevin begins the novel in a pot of water which will get hotter and hotter as the story develops, the question being whether he will be consumed by the heat or be able to escape from the fire.
Escape proves difficult, given how close to home the threat to Kevin is. On the one hand is his volatile older brother, Adam, introduced in the novel as having just stolen a car with his mates. Then there is Kevin’s Uncle Davey, recently released from prison and looking to ingratiate himself into the household, which has been left fatherless since the death of Kevin’s father ten years before the novel begins.
Given the chaos surrounding him, it is perhaps no surprise that Kevin should find solace in the game of chess, a game based on strict rules and order. Chess does not reward luck, as do most games, but instead requires great skill and forethought. One of the most poignant moments in the book comes when Kevin’s mother asks him to explain the rules to her, and this he does with increasing enthusiasm, lovingly and articulately describing the place and purpose of each piece:
…the bravest of the pawns with a bit of luck can one day become queen but nobody, no matter what they do, can ever become king.
This is a telling line, given how much emphasis the novel places on the idea of becoming someone else. Indeed there is a repeated allusion to the idea of doubles, which suggests an almost dreamlike quality beneath the gritty veneer of Butler’s story. Davey, it is noted, bears a striking resemblance to Kevin and Adam’s father, to the extent that Kevin once accidentally refers to him as “Da”, while Adam becomes in thrall to his uncle, even while Davey is full of barely checked resentment towards a world which he seems intent on believing has forsaken him as a result of his criminal past.
There is also a resemblance noted between Kevin and another young boy named Conor, whose photo Kevin discovers in a wallet found inside the car which his brother has stolen at the beginning of the novel. And there is a kitbag full of sports gear taken from the car, which Rory urges Kevin to return to Conor, and this Kevin tries to do but finds himself mistaken by Conor’s mother for a stand-in goalie on the team she is coaching, having taken over the role from Conor’s father, who has recently passed away. To be a goalie on a football team seems very different from being a chess player. Chess is all about strategy. It is about looking down from above at the bigger picture, trying to anticipate and outwit your opponent.
A goalie, however, has a more immediate and focused role. The world of the goalie is limited to the goal which the player is charged to protect. However that idea of protection is precisely what links the goalie to the chess player. The goalie must protect the goal while the chess player must protect the king. This ultimately speaks volumes about the role which Kevin ultimately assumes throughout the novel. He makes himself a protector of Conor, at first quite by accident when he near miraculously catches Conor’s phone after it falls from a fairground ride which both the boys are attending, and later on when he secretly returns Conor’s stolen sports gear in what might be the most touching moment in Butler’s tale.
Initially, Kevin intends to simply leave the bag outside Conor’s house, but discovering that he is alone, opts for something more elaborate, scattering the gear around the garden as if it had fallen from the sky, as though Conor’s father had returned the gear to him from the heavens. Here we glimpse again the chess player in Kevin. He knows how to set the pieces in order to craft a scenario, and can anticipate how Conor will react to this, because he knows Conor’s father coached the sports team, therefore the gear is both a connection and a reminder to Conor of his father, and might inspire in Conor some hope that his father has not truly left him.
Kevin grows up in a harsh world. His father died when he was only four years old, and he can see his brother being dragged deeper and deeper into a life of crime, yet for all this, he has a grounding in empathy that keeps him from being damaged by the world around him. He is in the frying pan, as the opening line of the novel suggests, but he never succumbs to the fire. This is particularly apparent in comparison to his brother. Adam is no monster, but he is easily swayed by Uncle Davey because he is desperate to replace the father he lost. Kevin feels that same loss, but in the absence of his own father he instead chooses to make himself a guardian angel for another boy who has lost a parent. To reveal too much of how this develops would be to spoil Butler’s plot. Suffice it to say that Kevin transcends the worst natures of the people around him in a way that also leads this urban tale to transform into something rather magical.
Ordinary and wounded people can, in the choices they make, and the games they play, turn themselves into angels.
Tony Flynn is an Editorial Assistant with Books Ireland magazine. He has an M.Phil. in Children’s Literature from Trinity College Dublin.