Thorny thriller misses the mark

Barry Oak­ley

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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