Sales Can Be Murder

Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, March 5, 2006


A Novel

By David Liss

Ballantine. 327 pp. $24.95

David Liss has a nose for history. He can smell it hundreds of years away. His debut, A Conspiracy of Paper , and its sequel, A Spectacle of Corruption , reeked of gritty 18th-century London. The Coffee Trader captured the scent of unwashed whores along with the best part of waking up in 17th-century Amsterdam. Now, for the first time, Liss has written a contemporary novel, The Ethical Assassin , set in Florida, but his olfactory sense is as acute as ever. "A putrid miasma whirled and eddied through the streets of the trailer park," he tells us in the opening paragraph. "It smelled like a prison camp outhouse. Worse."

Liss's previous novels were entertaining thrillers that also happened to teach us about the development of market economies in Europe. Intricate details about city life, including the smells of crowded streets without plumbing, were just part of the redolent charm of his scholarship. The Ethical Assassin is far less cerebral, but the stench is front and center, and the author is more didactic than ever. The story revolves around two of the nastiest enterprises in the world -- pig farming and crystal meth production -- but what really has Liss holding his nose is the moral rot of a society that eats meat.

His narrator is a charmingly sarcastic 17-year-old named Lem Altick, who survived high school by looking forward to college anywhere but in Florida. But when he got accepted to Columbia, his stepfather reneged on the promise of tuition money, so Lem is selling encyclopedias door-to-door to people who would be better off spending their money on food or propane. "Let me be absolutely clear about this," he tells us at the outset. "Not once, not one single time, no matter how happy I was to make a sale, did I ever do it without the acid tinge of regret. . . . but I was good at sales, good at it in a way I'd never been good at anything in my life. Sure, I'd done well in school, on my SATs, that sort of thing. But those were solitary activities, this was public, communal, social. I, Lem Altick, was getting the best of others in a social situation, and let me tell you, that was new, and it was delicious."

We meet Lem in a little speed-trap town that's home to a pig farm. Lem is working on a classic trailer-trash couple named Karen and Bastard. "It ain't my real name, but it's my real nickname," Bastard tells him. Lem runs through his shtick ("Would you be happier if your child was learning more?") and wins them over, but just as he reaches for their check, a man opens the door and shoots Karen and Bastard in the head. That's always a deal breaker.

This "ethical" assassin introduces himself as Melford and quickly goes about framing Lem for the double murder, then helping him elude the police chief, who turns out to be a psychotic killer, rapist and drug manufacturer. Zany encounters ensue. A boys' club founder keeps his pedophilia just barely in check. His sexy assistant is a Siamese twin haunted by her dead sister. More bodies pile up. Chapters jump from one cliffhanger to the next. As Lem realizes that the encyclopedia biz is really a front for selling something far more lucrative, gangsters start to close in on him, and the only person he can depend on is Melford, the man who blew away his last two customers.

All this is great fun, and if Liss is trespassing on Carl Hiaasen's turf, well, who cares? It's a big state. What's more troubling is the heavy-handed moralizing that Liss dishes out in this otherwise comic thriller. Once he's dispatched Karen and Bastard, Melford spends the rest of the novel patiently leading Lem (and us) to the wisdom of animal rights, with a dose of wide-eyed Marxism. There's a tedious earnestness to these passages, as though we've been trapped by one of those well-meaning volunteers on the street with a clipboard who wants to explain why our lives are immoral. Several times, the novel's humor evaporates, even the plot is suspended, and the colloquy begins: "What about medical research?" "Shouldn't we have the right to take advantage of our position on the food chain?" "Is cruelty motivated by capital less evil than other kinds of cruelty?"

Liss is a vegan, and I'm deeply sympathetic to his cause, but while reading The Ethical Assassin , I was struck by what a shaky soapbox a novel makes. If he didn't shoot me first, Melford would explain that capitalist ideology has blinded me to the revolutionary possibilities of fiction, but there's no sense in trading off the power of storytelling -- particularly as well as Liss can do it -- for an ethical debate. Although I'm now determined to swear off buying encyclopedias from door-to-door salesmen, novels less polemical than The Ethical Assassin have brought me closer to Liss's point of view on eating meat. I started using free-range eggs after reading Rob Levandoski's Fresh Eggs , and I gave up pork altogether after Annie Proulx's That Old Ace in the Hole . Fiction should entice, not shove us, toward moral improvement. The key, as Melford knows, is in the execution. ยท

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company