Thorny thriller misses the mark
THE further I went into Now You See Him, the more I felt the need to edit rather than review. Here’s how it begins: ‘‘ At this late date, would it be fair to say that people, after a fashion, have come to doubt the building blocks of life itself? That we suspect our food? That we fear our children? And that as a result we live individually today atop pyramids of defensive irony, squinched into the tiny pointed place on the top and looking balefully out at the landscape below?’’
Then there’s yet another such sentence, and at last the story begins: ‘‘ I loved him. I’d grown up across the street from him. In my own way, I worshipped him.’’
The narrator, who sometimes philosophises like George Eliot on speed, is Nick Framingham. He has an ordinary job in an ordinary little town called Monarch in upper New York state. His hero is Rob Castor, his oldest friend, who enjoyed brief minor celebrity after publishing a book of pitch- perfect short stories. But then writer’s block came down and his partner Kate did the unforgivable. She became the literary success that he expected to be.
As she rises, he sinks. They separate, and come together again only in death. Rob pays Kate a visit in her New York apartment. He persuades her to make love one more time, then he shoots her and, some time later, himself. Nick is undone by the tragedy and his marriage starts to fall apart. Vulnerable, uncertain, he’s drawn back to his boyhood sweetheart Belinda, who happens to be Rob’s sister.
Now You See Him By Eli Gottlieb Text Publishing, 242pp, $ 32.95
Gottlieb puts his story together skilfully and plants below it two cleverly concealed trapdoors, revelations that leave Nick traumatised and that, in accordance with the reviewer’s inviolable rule, can’t be disclosed here. They have a powerful effect on the reader as well and justify the blurb calling the novel a psychological thriller, but as Raymond Chandler might have said, it’s overwritten to hell: so much so that I started a running file of things that cry out for the editorial blue pencil.
Nick, trying to cope with Rob’s alcoholic mother after his death: ‘‘ But before I could say anything more, she put a long knobbled finger to her lips. Veins swirled upward towards its tip like the lines on a barber pole.’’
When Nick gets it together again with his first love, Belinda, he makes her sound like a cabernet sauvignon: ‘‘ Her lips were covered with a faintly waxy paste that tasted of synthetic fruit, but behind that was a deep, roused plumpness that dropped through my body in a hot curtain. The arches of my feet curled.’’
After he gets through his podiatric problems, the inevitable happens, but the high emotion gets lost between the mechanical and the maritime: ‘‘ suddenly, as happens occasionally the sex began having us ; the machine of sex with its nozzles and sprockets and flailing levers carrying us both forward, as if we were crossing a literal distance, rowing hard’’.
As we move towards the denouement, Gottlieb sometimes sounds like an optometrist let loose in a creative writing class: ‘‘ Carefully, holding my eye while doing so, Mac laughed.’’ And later, ‘‘ Moistly, his eyes rolled up to meet mine, the lashes grimed.’’
All this is a great pity because Gottlieb is a talented writer. He has a sure sense of structure and pace, and he times his revelations perfectly. Just when we thought we had Rob’s and Nick’s measure, we find we don’t. There are depths that they, and we, didn’t know they had, and the climactic scene grips like a fist. Here, for the first time, the intensity of the situation justifies the intensity of the language.
But though Now You See Him is short, it seems to take a long while to get to the point. The reason can be found in Ann Patchett’s cover blurb: ‘‘ Now You See Him is a true literary page- turner in which a string of startling revelations unfolds within the constructs of lush and beautiful prose.’’
As Chandler almost certainly would have said: ‘‘ If you’re writing a thriller, ‘ lush’ has got to be a noun, not an adjective.’’ Journeys, the fifth collection of short stories Barry Oakley has edited for Five Mile Press, is out now.