Steve Ainsworth and Clifford Hudson hang upside-down outside a 32nd storey apartment in New York’s chic Tribeca district. Stripped to their boxer shorts, they are tied at the neck and wrists by frilly women’s underwear.
It’s the night of Steve’s bachelor party. As Clifford, his best man and fellow futures trader, was about to humiliate two call girls into performing a derogatory sexual act to the sound of wild cheering from the frenzied guests, armed vigilantes – the 3W Gang – burst into the apartment. But these are no ordinary criminals: they came to punish Steve and Clifford for their degrading attitude to women.
The dramatic opening scene of Even Flow sets the tone for a provocative new crime thriller by Irish journalist and author, Darragh McManus. Mixing influences as diverse as Don De Lillo and a Clockwork Orange with The Smiths and Pearl Jam into a cinematic stew, Even Flow centers on the 3W Gang’s unconventional tactics to promote their vision of a tolerant society.
“They’re the ‘new man’ in excelsis,” McManus explains. “They’re very feminist, pro-gay rights and very anti-machismo, homophobia and misogyny. They’re the children of movements since the ’60s, like feminism, gay rights, irony and post-modernism. They’re like Germaine Greer crossed with Dirty Harry crossed with Kurt Cobain.”
The members of the 3W Gang take their names from three gay icons – playwright Oscar Wilde, poet Walt Whitman and film director John Waters – and view their bold stunts as responses to society’s ills. They record their crimes in a spoof show they call ‘Karma TV’ and send the tapes to the Network 4 channel for broadcast.
During a tense live transmission with arrogant news anchor Jonathon Bailey, Wilde, the 3W Gang’s spokesman, outlines their philosophy: “It’s science. You know the physics theory: for every action, there must a reaction. Well, we didn’t start this; we’re just reacting. Redressing the balance.”
The breathless plot entangles Danny Everard, a gay detective in the middle of a personal crisis who empathises with the 3W Gang’s motives but is equally determined to uphold the law, and Cathy Morrissey, a pragmatic Irish-American, who works as a production manager on Network 4’s news programs and socialises in Doyle’s Pub in the Bronx.
Fittingly, for a novel that evokes the clipped style of Elmore Leonard, Even Flow is marked by its filmic descriptions. In a chapter that explores the media’s lurid approach to news reporting, for example, each scene is introduced with the words “Cut to…”. These aspects of the book partly reflect its genesis.
“I wrote a very rough draft about 10 years,” McManus says. “The idea was burning in my head. Then I reworked it for a script for a competition that was organized by the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences]. It did really well. A few studios in LA got onto me, but nothing ever came of it.”
Similarly, the story is told in a variety of formats: email correspondence, comic strips and fictitious newspaper articles tracking the 3W Gang’s activities. McManus even designed the book’s cover: in front of a red theater curtain and enveloped in a spotlight, a tuxedo-clad man in a balaclava stares at the camera. He holds a pistol by his side. It underlines the author’s preoccupation with form.
“What this cover says is, “Settle into your seats – the curtain is about to rise, our show’s about to begin,” explains McManus. “And this is meant on two levels. First, the story is about to commence for the reader; the “show” that is our engagement with a book.
“Second, the vigilante gang in Even Flow aren’t just kicking ass and taking names: they’re making statements. Political, social, sexual and artistic. This is vigilantism, protest and direct action as a sort of performance art. So when they begin their campaign – their “war” on macho society – it’s as if they’re lifting the curtain on a performance. Pay attention, world, this is where the fun begins.”
A graduate of the National University of Ireland, Cork, and living in Co. Clare, McManus writes features and reviews for publications like The Sunday Times, The Irish Independent and The RTE Guide in Ireland and The Guardian in the UK.
Even Flow is his third book. In 2011, McManus published Cold! Steel!! Justice!!!, a comic novel released under the pen-name Alexander O’Hara. GAA Confidential, his 2007 debut, charted the history and eccentricities of the Gaelic Athletic Association, asking soul-searching questions – like how would The Sunday Game clichés translate into Portuguese?
The idea for Even Flow was born during McManus’ college days. A spate of violent attacks on students suspected of being gay prompted heated discussions on how to respond. Labelled ‘queer-bashing’ by the media at the time, the author imagined how a vigilante gang of ‘queer-basher bashers’ would retaliate.