There is nothing that makes me more mental during a notes session than when someone brings up the word "likable." Like it is the end-all be-all desired state of existence for every character ever created. Like that is what we all aspire to as personal nirvana: likability.
Charlie Huston is smart enough as a writer to know that it doesn't matter if you like a character or hate a character just as long as their voices strike us as real. If we engage, that's all it takes. Honestly, for the first half of the book, Web is such a complete douche to each and every person in his life that you figure he earns every bit of bad karma that comes raining down on him over the course of this wicked, dark noir thriller. But gradually, Web's damaged past starts to surface, and as you piece together exactly why it is he doesn't ride the bus or what led him to stop teaching... well, it pays off. And while I would never actually say that I liked Web, the process of fully comprehending him as a character was a total delight.
[More after the jump.]
Huston has been building a reputation with fans of crime fiction. His website's called Pulpnoir.com, for god'ssakes. That's a guy who speaks my language, at least in theory. There's a fine line between understanding pulp and noir and being able to create real, viable new works in the genres, and just doing empty pastiche or homage. Huston absolutely lives and breathes this stuff, and "The Mystic Arts Of Erasing All Signs Of Death" is as good a jumping on place for new readers as any, and I guarantee it'll send you searching for his earlier work.
As I said, Web Goodhue is an asshole. A former elementary school teacher, he has retreated into a responsibility-free cocoon of bad behavior and poor social skills. He works occasionally at the tattoo parlor run by the friend he's living with, and he's abusive and hostile to anyone he has to talk to. He's hiding. Intentionally pushing away even the slightest suggestion of human kindess. And when he finds himself in a bind over money, he is at a loss until an acquaintance of his named Po Sin offers him the worst job he can imagine: cleaning up at the scenes of deaths after the police have finished. It's exactly the sort of self-degradation that appeals to Web, and he throws himself into the job, never realizing exactly how far down the ride's going to take him. When he meets a standard-issue femme fatale named Soledad, she and her brother Jamie get him embroiled in a scheme that threatens his life, which is already looking somewhat threatened by the turf wars he never realized existed in the crime-scene clean-up business. The book is scabrously funny, dirty in places, with terribly graphic descriptions that will turn all but the strongest of stomachs.
Want to read a sample for yourself? Check out this widget that the publisher provided:
Nice, eh? That's a sample of the way Huston uses voice to wrap you up in even the most horrifyingly graphic moments. And the way it doesn't matter if you like the main character or not. Web's interesting. His pain is very real, and his blistering sarcasm is a clear defense against a world that has hurt him as much as he feels like he can be hurt. This would work even if it weren't a noir story, because Web's that well-realized. You could just read this as a story of a broken young man trying to use this filthy job to somehow shock him out of the fog he's been in since his own personal tragedy. But the way Huston uses this particular world to paint this noir story is what makes the book one of the most seductive reads I've had in a while. It works completely as a noir thriller, and as a character study, and neither side is shortchanged. That's no easy trick, and it's just further proof that Huston is rapidly developing into one of our most precious resources in crime fiction.
I love that his publisher is trying various new-media techniques to try to get people to pick up the book, like this YouTube trailer:
I meant to publish this review for the first day the book was in stores, which was smack-dab in the middle of Sundance, and part of my thought I actually had published it. But when I was looking at the blog list today and saw that I hadn't actually finished the review, I cursed. Repeatedly and creatively. This is exactly the sort of work that deserves to be supported and passed around and shared. This is one of those books that will probably be a frequent birthday gift from me to friends this year. And it's one of those books I hope you'll pick up, because if you like this type of storytelling at all, I think you're going to be suitably flattened by just how sharp and funny Huston is right now, and by just how much his seemingly simple story really has to say about the way we pick up and carry on after being touched by the shadow of mortality.