It’s hard to know what to make of Highfire, the debut book for adults from Eoin Colfer. On one level it’s a sort of pastiche of – or tribute to – the freewheeling, funny, picaresque crime capers of American writers such as Carl Hiaasen or, in his more whimsical moods, Elmore Leonard. On a whole other level, the book has a dragon for a central character.
You read that right: a dragon. Not a metaphor for heroin, or reference to some Chinese Triad involvement in this convoluted, enjoyably OTT tale of dirty deeds deep in the Louisiana bayou. Highfire features an actual dragon.
His name is Vern – short for Wyvern – and he’s thousands of years old, probably the last of his species. Vern lives in a shack way out in the swamp, where he chugs vodka, watches TV and, for obscure reasons later explained, wears tee-shirts of that cheesy 1980s movie Flashdance.
He’s foul-mouthed and cranky, essentially a misanthropic hillbilly living off the grid, only this one is more-or-less immortal, has scales and wings, and can fly, breathe fire and use a heated talon as a cutting-tool. His only pal is Waxman, who actually is a misanthropic hillbilly living off the grid, except he’s not quite that, either.
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As we find out early enough, Waxman is a mogwai – another reference to 1980s pop culture, as Gremlins fans will recognise – a similarly long-lived cross between dragon and human. Waxman fetches the things Vern wants or needs; obviously he can’t toddle into the nearest town himself for provisions, for fear of being attacked by frightened people.
And Squib Moreau fetches for Waxman, which is where the “crime caper” element of the story comes in. Real name Everett, this Cajun teenager is one of those half-wild scrappers familiar from literature all the way back to Huckleberry Finn.
He skips school, peddles in low-level crime and regularly breaks the heart of his mother Elodie, a nurse as beautiful inside as she is outside. But he’s fundamentally a good kid; all he wants is enough money to get him and Elodie out of the bayou and into town, where she’ll hopefully be safer from the leering predations of Regence Hooke, the local constable.
He’s a bad article par excellence, and one night Squib sees him kill a local low-level criminal, on the orders of Hooke’s New Orleans Mob boss. The rogue cop tries to kill the witness; Vern interrupts and whisks Squib off to his shack, to kill the boy himself.
Eventually, he’s convinced by Waxman to let Squib live and work for him while the mogwai takes a necessary regenerative “dirt nap”. Squib believes his fortunes are finally turning, but the increasingly psychopathic Hooke is determined to get his blood-soaked hands on the Mob’s business, on Elodie, and on Squib’s tender neck.
That’s the story set-up, and again, it’s hard to know what to make of it all. The basic premise of Highfire is so ridiculous, in some senses, that you’d nearly wonder how it even came to mind for Colfer.
“It’s the Dukes of Hazzard meets Game of Thrones! With all the comic mayhem of the first, and all the bad language and stomach-churning violence of the second! Hmmm…could maybe work?”
Colfer, of course, is a mega-successful author of children’s books. Being a little too old for Artemis Fowl, the only work of his that I’d previously read was ‘A Bag of Hammers’, his contribution to Trouble is Our Business, a pretty good collection of crime short-stories by Irish writers, published in 2016.
Colfer’s tongue-in-cheek tale of a crime writer and his tough-talking fictional creation was very funny, up to and beyond the semi-mythical “laugh out loud”. It really stood out among the mostly serious stories in that collection.
Highfire stands out too, though whether that’s in a good or bad way depends, I guess, on the individual reader. In fairness, I’d be the first person to complain about a lack of originality in fiction. Indeed in some ways, an original idea, something you’ve never come across before and that can’t be compared to anything else, is the Holy Grail for a reader.
And Highfire certainly is unique. But to repeat myself, whether that’s for good or bad will depend on readers’ subjective tastes.
Did I enjoy it? Yes and no. The novel is zippy and entertaining but goes on for too long. There are moments of real comic brilliance but at other moments the tone is all over the place. Meanwhile, Colfer conjures up a vivid sense of place but sometimes overdoes the whole “goddamn boy that there’s a right mean ‘gator you got yourself I reckon” shtick. I appreciate that a little exaggeration is allowed, even required, in a comedy, but do Cajuns really talk anything like this?
And some of the characters are sympathetic, endearing and interesting… but one of them is a dragon. Which brings us back to not knowing what to make of it.
Darragh McManus’ books include ‘Shiver the Whole Night Through’ and ‘The Polka Dot Girl’
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