Fiction – hardcover; Canongate; 304 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
If modern fiction has produced a more deluded, creepy, sex-obsessed “hero” than Bunny Munro I’ve yet to encounter him. If you’ll forgive the crudity, Bunny Munro is a wanker — a literal wanker. He’s obsessed with “beating off”, as he puts it, and he doesn’t particularly care where he does it or how often.
If that’s not enough, he sleeps with prostitutes, waitresses, clients, in fact anyone who succumbs to his lecherous ways and sexual magnetism.
And yet Bunny Munro is a married man, and, by his own account, a very happily married man, who loves his wife deeply but fails to truly understand her “medical condition”. The book opens with her suicide, which seems to have very little emotional impact on Bunny — when he discovers her body he notes that “her tits look good”. It gets worse. Midway through her funeral, after eying up all the female guests, he’s in the toilets masturbating. Later he has unsatisfying sex with the girlfriend of his best friend.
But while he seems unable to feel any grief over the loss of his wife, as a reader you can’t help but feel some sympathy for him. Perhaps the shock has rendered him emotionally crippled? Has her death not yet hit home?
It’s when Bunny takes to the road, his nine-year-old son, Bunny Junior, in tow, that you get the true measure of the man. As he peddles cosmetics door to door, making desperate attempts to jump in the pants of countless depressed housewives up and down England’s south-east coast, you begin to understand he’s losing his grip. He’s been a bad husband, a bad father and a truly awful salesman, but his shocking lack of self-awareness means he never truly realises what a terrible, treacherous human being he really is. It is you, the reader, who comes to realise he’s unhinged, that his psychopathic tendencies are becoming more and more pronounced, and yet he’s been so sympathetically drawn it’s difficult to hate him.
Cave achieves this measure of pity by painting a much worse character in the form of the “Horned Devil”, a knife-wielding murderer whose trail of death is being reported on the nightly news, and whom Bunny himself finds scary and unbelievable.
And it also helps that Bunny is a father, a terrible wayward father, but a father nonetheless, and that his son, a smart, academically inclined kid, hero-worships him. Bunny might be a creep who preys on vulnerable women, but he’s human and even though you know he’s going to meet his end at some point — hence the book’s title — there’s hope of redemption.
While The Death of Bunny Munro treads some dark territory, it’s incredibly funny in places, which means you end up laughing at the “hero” rather than wincing at his every ridiculously audacious move. And those who are familiar with Cave’s long musical career and Australian background will appreciate his in-house joke (although it does wear thin after several repetitions) in which Bunny Munro has a “thing” for Australian songstress Kylie Minogue. (There’s an apology to her at the end of the novel.)
Reading this book is a bit like riding a rollercoaster, full of immense ups and downs, with unexpected twists and turns, and a cracking pace that threatens to derail it all. Whether you want to get on the ride depends on your constitution, because the only fluffy thing about this book is the bunny on the cover. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.