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Another beautiful Miami day. Mutilated corpses with a chance of afternoon showers. I got dressed and went to work.
My friend Linda over at Tapetum Lucidum recently challenged me to review today’s book. I guess I have been putting it off for a few weeks. Can’t think why, although I avoided the television show as well for a couple of years too. That too was only because my then-girlfriend-now-wife Stephanie insisted on my watching it with her. It has one of the most impressive title sequences of any show I have seen, and the heat and sweat of the Miami setting conspires to create an unusually manic tone to the episodes themselves.
Slowly but surely I have grudgingly come to like it. Still there is this reluctance to get to grips with Dexter on my part, which is difficult to explain to friends who are fans. Is it that I am squeamish, me, who would happily sit through a marathon session of brain-chomping zombie movies? I guess I have issues with the notion of a human monster. Monsters for me are creatures of fantasy. Psychopaths on television make a pretence at realism, all the while seeming utterly inhuman. That’s hard for me to get my head around.
Dexter has no such confusion in his life. He is a monster. He even enjoys it. Throughout his adult life his bloodlust has been spurred on and contained by two competing presences in his mind: the entity he refers to as his ‘Dark Passenger’, and Harry, the worldly wise cop who took him in as a child and taught him the rules of how to hide his murderous nature. Harry gave him a code, one that would allow him to sate the urge to kill, while at the same time only directing him to target other murderers. He is a human-monster slayer, if you like, on the hunt for paedophiles, abusers and killers much like himself. Think an apex predator who is fiercely territorial of his ‘patch’.
He has even found a profession that gives him an additional outlet for his compulsion, working in a Miami police department crime lab. His expertise is blood analysis. Except for the lab’s latest case, there seems to be nothing for him to work with. A new serial killer has hit town and is carving up prostitutes. The bodies are left in public spaces, dismembered, with no traces of blood. Dexter finds himself fascinated with the methods employed by this new challenger to his title, even curiously excited at the prospect of meeting someone as good as himself.
Meanwhile his foster-sister Deborah is desperate to solve the case and make sergeant. Unfortunately she has no head for local politics, despite Dexter’s attempts to guide her through the choppy waters of backstabbing superior officers and the station pecking order. She recognizes that her brother’s strange hunches often tend to land the case, pushing down any concerns as to how it is so easy for him to think like a murderer. Before the case is closed, Dexter will find his loyalties to the memory of Harry and Deb, his only remaining family, tested as never before, as the killer’s behaviour seems so close to his own. Perhaps he is the killer, the Dark Passenger having finally won?
What I enjoy about this book is how well Jeff Lindsay employs what I call the ‘Humbert Humbert effect’ (as with Love in the Time of Cholera). We are invited to share the same headspace as a monster, who charms us and attempts to win us over with deadpan humour. He seems honest, revelling in his torture and murdering of other ‘monsters’, but in fact how he presents his actions to us is subtly leavened – he becomes the hero. At one point he even self-applies the word ‘avenger’.
Then there’s his delicate relationship with Rita, a battered woman who is looking for an emotional relationship, but too afraid to take the next step. As Dexter has no real sex-drive, this suits him perfectly. To again emphasise this inverted notion of a murderer-as-innocent, he finds himself pulled between three demanding women. His eagerness to meet this new slasher is described as being comparable to a teenage girl waiting for a boy to ask her out.
As all of this is framed by Dexter himself, the reader cannot trust any of it. With lashings of gallows humour and perversity, this is a quirkily entertaining read.
What I definitely learned just now is that everything hinges on the words you use. Doesn’t matter what you do in life, you just have to wrap the thing in the right kind of words.
Do you remember the first time you saw a ‘Parental Advisory’, sticker on a CD? What an unusual gesture that was. I especially loved how that black and white symbol got slapped onto rap albums back in the nineties, ensuring premium sales in white middle-class teenager demographics. Here’s this badge that supposedly alerts parents to the insidious content of the album’s lyrics and it’s become a marketing goldmine for records that might not otherwise have been sold.
Funny thing that. To my mind this is all part and parcel of our instant-access voyeuristic culture. Scripted ‘reality television’, phone-in lines for talent shows, programming targeting women with low self-esteem about their body types – this is entertainment now. Not stories with meaning and innovative plots, just ordinary people jumping through hoops to find some temporary catharsis courtesy of the cathode-ray tube.
Television brings no relief for Vernon Little’s problems. His only friend in the small Texan town of Martirio just went on a shooting spree in their school, before killing himself. With the perpetrator dead and no trial to capture the media cycle, it falls to reporter Eulalio Ledesma to create a story, stoking the flames of suspicion in Vernon’s direction. When a witness to corroborate his story that he was not an accomplice to the crimes fails to come forward, Vernon finds himself transformed into Public Enemy number one.
Before he has even set foot in a court-room, trial by media has already judged him a psychopath. Ledesma, who likes to be called Lally, initially befriends Vernon, then seduces his mother and establishes himself as a new father figure for the fourteen year old boy, all in the name of controlling the story. By the time Vernon realizes he is being manipulated by the huckster it is already too late. The town of Martirio was cheated of its chance for revenge against his friend Jesus, and so he has become an accessory to murder. When another shooting tragedy in California hits the news, Lally engineers even more crimes committed by Vernon to scandalize.
Realizing he has no hope of a fair trial, Vernon attempts to run to Mexico, but with no money and televisions blaring his photo in every bus depot it seems he’ll never be able to stop running. Plus he has a secret that even Lally has failed to pry out of him. There is another gun, hidden nearby the school. It has Vernon’s prints all over it.
If Chuck Palahniuk were to reimagine A Confederacy of Dunces, it might come out something like this scorching debut from DBC Pierre. The doomed narrator Vernon sees injustice everywhere, but completely inarticulate, unable to defend himself, let alone condemn the hucksters of this world like Eulalio Ledesma. This Texan small town runs on spite, gossip and innuendo. A loner like Vernon never really had a chance. He encounters incompetent law enforcers, pedophile rings, opportunists and liars, all wanting to profit from his misfortune.
Vernon perceives the world through the moral code of television movies. He cannot understand how he can be found guilty, as at all times he has tried to live by his own set of principles. His friendship with Jesus the shooter only manages to incriminate him. His own mother is easily manipulated into identifying him as a murderer on camera by the sly Lally. Vernon has no one he can trust, no one who won’t betray him to make a quick dollar. It is only when he learns to become more like Lally, like the pimps and liars that have corrupted the world, that he earns a chance to fight back.
This book is written from the confused and hormonally intense perspective of Vernon himself, with a fixation on describing sex organs and bowel movements. As a foul-mouthed Humbert Humbert for the twenty-first century, this teenage narrator presents his own personal spin on contemporary Americana. Crimes are punished in response the degree of sensationalism they attract. Dieting is the height of discourse and innocence is just an invitation to being exploited.
Welcome to the dark heart of contemporary satire. It’s really not that funny a joke.
In the middle of the afternoon, she went down to the first floor and bought a card in the greetings-card department. It was not a very interesting card, but at least it was simple, in plain blue and gold. She stood with the pen poised over the card, thinking of what she might have written – ‘You are magnificent’ or even ‘I love you’ – finally writing quickly the excruciatingly dull and impersonal: ‘Special salutations from Frankenberg’s’. She added her number, 645-A, in lieu of a signature.
Patricia Highsmith’s books are tightly plotted and emotionally jagged noir mysteries. From the chameleon-like Tom Ripley to Strangers on a Train’s Charles Anthony Bruno, the author specialized in characters with a lump of ice in their hearts. The Price of Salt is something quite different. It has the requisite Highsmith paranoia and emotional blackmail common to her other novels, but it draws upon her own life, the plot inspired by a brief period the author spent working in a department store. It is a story about an affair between shopgirl and aspiring stage designer Therese Belivet and Carol Aird. Unusually for a Highsmith novel the book is ultimately hopeful, the love between the characters genuine and was considered revolutionary at the time of publication for being a story about homosexuality with a happy ending.
Therese is a young woman just out of boarding school with artistic ambitions trying to make it in New York. Estranged from her family, who packed her off to boarding school once her father died, she has become solitary and possessed of changeable moods. She is in an unfulfilling relationship with an aspiring artist named Richard, who is a lot more secure than she is, both emotionally and financially. He also seems to merely be dabbling in art, whereas Therese pounds the pavement trying to get stage designer jobs with theatre companies. To make some extra cash she takes a job working in Frankenberg’s department store selling toys in the run up to Christmas. The monotony and boredom of the job suddenly evaporates one afternoon when she meets a customer named Carol, whom she helps find a doll to give to her daughter as a Christmas gift. Therese leaps at the chance to strike up a friendship with the cool and contained woman, who is involved in bitter divorce proceedings. As the two grow closer, Therese realizes that she loves Carol and that she feels nothing romantic for the feckless Richard. However, the more she gets to know this woman who seems so self-assured and calm, the more she realizes that it is Carol who has everything to lose, as her ex-husband Harge is eager to use whatever leverage he can to win full custody of their daughter. What possible future do the two of them have together, if their love carries such a terrible price?
Highsmith writes with a singular intimacy and intensity, establishing the conflicting thoughts that rush through Therese’s uncertain mind. When Therese meets the elderly shop assistant Ruby Robichek one night for a quiet meal, the encounter proves to be a brief vignette on a life wasted by loneliness and failure. Ms Robichek is a presentiment of what could happen to Therese if she gives in to convention and abandons her desires. We also begin to understand just how pressurized Carol Aird’s life has been to date, with her husband and in-laws arrayed against her. She describes how Harge chose her to be his wife in the way he might have chosen a carpet, as an object he could possess. Her crime is not that she is a lesbian per se, but more that she refuses to toe the line and lead a conventional life as a doting wife. Richard’s confident belief that Therese will agree to marry him is also rooted in the narrative conventions of typical male and female relationships. He has put the time into getting to know her and surely this is what happens next?
This edition of The Price of Salt comes with a quote from Terry Castle of The New Republic arguing that the transgressive sex and climactic cross-country car chase of the novel inspired Nabochov’s Lolita. I feel this is a tacked on conclusion that risks equivocating Humbert Humbert’s paedophilia with homosexuality. The novel is a corrective to the dour fates assigned to lesbians in pulp fiction, (suicide; acceptance of a dutiful husband).
An underappreciated classic.