The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

September 28, 2009

REVIEW: PARIAH by Dave Zeltserman

In two days, Dave Zeltserman's Pariah hits the bookstores. As a reminder, and because I think this is a terrific book, I'm bringing to your attention this review I wrote last May.

After eight years in prison for a bank robbery he most definitely was part of, Kyle Nevin is a free man. Not on parole, not on probation. Free. Free to search out and destroy the mob boss who ratted him out and set him up for the ambush. Fueled by a consuming need for revenge, for status and instant wealth, Kyle plans to attain all of these through a kidnapping. Of Irish descent, Kyle should have applied Murphy's Law: Anything that can go wrong, will, especially when there's always someone willing to rat you out. Never mind. He's smart enough, strong enough, and more than ruthless enough to beat, shoot, burn or even charm his way through all the problems. Nothing stands in Kyle's way, certainly not any of the finer feelings. He has other tools: intimidation, manipulation, deception, and a blinding rage always ready to boil over into violence. With these tools, he can do anything he wants - except see himself for the monster he is.

REVIEW: This book just sucked the air right out of me. It's more than great noir. This book's got teeth that bite and claws that catch, and it's a masterpiece. If you're looking for a hero or even an anti-hero, you won't find one here. Kyle Nevin is pure, unwavering psychopath, and the most finely drawn such creature since Charles Willeford put Junior Frenger on paper. If Jim Thompson's Lou Ford and James Cagney's Cody Jarrett (White Heat, 1949) are watching somewhere from the halls of twisted fiction, they are pouring out their warped blessings on Kyle Nevin.

All of the characters are well-drawn, no mean feat since the story is told from Kyle's point of view. Getting past his self-absorption and lack of empathy for others to see real 3D characters should be a chore for any author, but Zeltserman uses another attribute of psychopathy to reveal and create empathy for Nevin's victims: Nevin's merciless exploitation of their personalities. Virtually everyone who comes in contact with him becomes his victim in one way or another. The way Kyle systematically takes apart his struggling brother's life is like watching a wreck on the highway: you don't want to look but you can't resist the compulsion. It would have been very easy to make Kyle almost an evil superman, as he is completely unlikeable and irredeemable, a kind of noirish Gary Stu, but the author wisely found and manipulated the cracks in Kyle's armor. He does have psychological weaknesses - his vanity, his need to control, a craving for power and adulation - that manifest themselves in the physical, but Zeltserman walked a fine tightrope here, making the character fully rounded without ever giving the reader any reason or opportunity to empathize with him. Unlike the Joe Denton character in Small Crimes (my review here) whose full character wasn't truly understood even by himself until the very end of the book, the reader has no doubt from early on just what sort of vile anti-human Kyle is. Kyle may have some idea of what he is but that will never be something that troubles him. Just don't let anyone else mention it.

The setting is primarily Boston and its Southie section, with some brief forays into other locales. More than any other novel I've read, Pariah comes closest, scarily so, to breathing life and death into the news stories I've read about mob boss Whitey Bulger and the culture of murder, drugs, suicide and silence so prevalent in Southie then and probably to a great degree even now. Cultures and organizations with such hardened rules don't just change overnight, it takes years to eradicate or even just shift the old mindset.

While the general plot as I've described it in the synopsis may sound like something you've read before, I have been careful, I hope, not to write any spoilers, because this story takes Kyle down a far stranger, and yet more realistic, road than that brief summary would indicate. The author has both imagination and cojones by the boatload. He not only tackles the Southie history and culture of crime and violence, but he manages some truly sharp stabs at the publishing industry, specifically those kinds of publishers willing to pay huge money to OJ for that If I Did It book, while rejecting worthy but unknown authors simply for being unknown. Along those lines, there is a scene between Kyle and a struggling writer that is priceless. But don't think the stabbing stops at the publishing industry; the satire also lacerates the American fascination with and reverence for celebrity criminals.

The structure of the book is generally linear, and the reader gets clued in on Kyle's backstory as naturally as if the two of you were having lunch and chatting casually. When the character is this complex, it's good to keep the structure simple, no time shifts, no POV shifts. And no flights of fanciful prose here, this is Kyle Nevin telling you his story and he's not real big on poetry. He's direct. Not necessarily straightforward but still direct. While Kyle is always on the verge of or actually engaged in violence, he never gets too lovingly involved in graphic details, lending credence to his cold indifference to others.

The pacing of the book is a remarkable accomplishment. Pariah is moved along not so much by pace or tension as by torque. Definition time: torque is a measure of how much a force acting on an object causes that object to rotate. Zeltserman has put his objects - Kyle and the other characters - in motion and applies varying amounts of force to them. In turn, they apply force to each other, especially Kyle, and everybody starts to spin, carom, collide. The closer the reader comes to getting at the core of Nevin's character, the greater the torque, until something has to give. I don't think I breathed for the last 30 pages of this story.

Ken Bruen has written an elegant paean to this book and I want to share just one sentence of that well-deserved song of praise: 'Pariah is all I know of bliss and lament... bliss at reading a superb novel and lament at knowing that Dave Zeltersman has now raised the bar so high, we're screwed.'

If you revere the dark tales of Charles Willeford, Jim Thompson and James M. Cain, add Dave Zeltserman's name to your list. I promise you that in years to come, when those first three names are mentioned, so will the fourth.

Pariah by Dave Zeltserman. Serpent's Tail, © October, 2009.
ISBN 9781846686436 (trade paperback), 273p.