This strange, outrageous and wonderful novel is not for everyone. If you turn to fiction for comfort, uplift or the milk of human kindness, you should avoid Carsten Stroud’s “Niceville.” If, however, you savor the blackest of comedy and fear that evil is all around us, embodied in both flesh-and-blood and supernatural creatures, then you might enjoy this toxic tale as much as I did.
At the outset, young Rainey Teague vanishes one afternoon in the sleepy Southern town of Niceville. Several days later, he is found in a place where it seems impossible for him to be. This is our first hint that otherworldly forces may be at work. We learn that the Teagues are one of the four families who have ruled Niceville since its founding and that bitter feuds, going back a century or more, rage among them.
Next, two bank robbers are pursued by police as they make off with more than $2 million. The police would surely catch them, except that their confederate, stationed on a hillside, proceeds with military precision to shoot and kill the drivers of all four police cars and also downs a news helicopter. The chopper’s fiery crash, as a “newsgirl” inside excitedly broadcasts the chase, makes the shooter smile, “putting a cold yellow glitter in his pale brown eyes.”
We will come to know these three outlaws better as greed moves them to battle one another over the loot. The hillside shooter visits the funeral home to express his condolences to his victims’ families and to lustfully eye one of the widows. Inwardly, he tries to regret having assassinated police officers, but, he reflects that “the world was a mean place and people had to look after their interests.”
The story of the Teague boy’s disappearance leads us into Niceville’s ancient but still-active hatreds, even as the aftermath of the bank robbery results in ever-increasing violence by men who have learned the killing arts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Are there no decent people in this misnamed community? A few. Kate Kavanaugh, an idealistic lawyer, is first seen winning a divorce case, which causes the losing party, a nasty little wife-beater, to start planning his revenge against her.
Kate is married to Nick Kavanaugh, formerly of the Special Forces, now a “ruthless but fair” lawman with a taste for vigilante justice that leaves suspected criminals unlikely to sin again — or perhaps even to walk and talk. When gentle Kate asks Nick why the bank robbers killed the policemen instead of just disabling their cars, he explains patiently: “From a military point of view, it’s just more efficient. No survivors, no witnesses, no risk.” Nick loved the Special Forces but dislikes hometown cookouts because “barbecues make me think of Fallujah.”
For decades, people have vanished from Niceville at a rate far above the national average. In the course of this novel, several more leading citizens go missing. There is talk of a curse on the town, and outside Niceville looms Crater Sink, an apparently bottomless body of water that Native Americans have long considered a source of evil. Many of the missing, it is feared, might have somehow met their fate in Crater Sink.
We witness demonic, truly frightening deaths (“darkness flew at him, black wings, razor-edged beaks, claws ripping, yellow eyes with a green light, a crushing force thick with rage and hate. The feeding began”), and we meet many twisted characters. A leading citizen has for years been photographing his teenage daughters with a camera hidden in the ceiling of their bathroom. A dentist dispenses overdoses of happy gas to make young female patients “unwitting models in erotic photo-essays.” We see a drunken father “teaching his toddler how to pull-start a gas-powered weed whacker.” We’re then warned, unnecessarily, “It wasn’t going to end well.”
Stroud’s sardonic story often recalls a Hieronymus Bosch landscape, teeming with sinners, monsters and madmen. These horrors won’t be for everyone, but the book also offers surprises, shocks, moments of lyricism, explosions of humor and unrelenting suspense. It’s superior storytelling. Call it the summer’s darkest, most delicious guilty pleasure.
Anderson regularly reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Post.
By Carsten Stroud
Knopf. 383 pp. $26.95