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Picking Up the Pieces

By Patrick Anderson,
who can be reached at mondaythrillers.com.
Monday, January 12, 2009

THE MYSTIC ARTS OF ERASING ALL SIGNS OF DEATH

By Charlie Huston

Ballantine. 319 pp. $25

Not many novelists explore the potential humor in crime. The great Donald Westlake, who died on New Year's Eve, was one such writer, and Charlie Huston is another.

Huston, who was bartending when he wrote the first volume in his Edgar-nominated Hank Thompson trilogy, has mostly produced novels that are both violent and darkly hilarious. The hapless Thompson made off with some money that wasn't his and thus had mobsters chasing him around the United States and Mexico for years. Now, with his ninth novel, Huston has outdone himself by introducing disaster-prone Web Goodhue, the star of a comic masterpiece called "The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death."

Web was once an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles, but tragedy derailed that calling. He has been unemployed for a year, a deeply alienated slacker who repays friends who try to comfort him with anger and sarcasm. He has only one friend left, Chev, who operates a tattoo parlor and gives him a place to sleep, but Chev is about to evict him after endless insults.

Salvation arrives in the person of a giant Chinese American named Po Sin, who offers Web a job with Clean Team, his "trauma cleanup" company. Po Sin and his staff clean up after people who have blown their brains out, or had them blown out by others, or whose bodies have been undiscovered until many days or weeks after their demise.

Warnings are in order. Readers who lack strong stomachs should not venture here. Nor should those with an aversion to frequent profanity (although in context it seems reasonable enough) or to creative punctuation. Huston's ideal readers are probably young, hip and enamored of the grotesque and surreal underbelly of American life, which of course is never more extreme than in Los Angeles. Web Goodhue doesn't use drugs, but in this novel his life is one long bad trip.

Soon after entering the crime-scene cleanup business, Web faces trouble on several fronts. A conflict between the Clean Team and its rival, Aftershock Trauma, leads to violent confrontations. Even worse, while Web is tidying up after a suicide in Malibu, he meets the deceased's daughter, Soledad. A cautious romance ensues, although like the romance between Sam Spade and Brigid O'Shaughnessy in "The Maltese Falcon," it is fraught with mistrust.

Through Soledad, Web becomes involved with her worthless half brother, Jamie, who calls himself a movie producer, although his current goal is to sign some 13-year-olds who "had a top-ten most-viewed clip on YouTube for over a week," the subject of which can be discussed in only the most depraved company. This idiot has run afoul of some serious criminals who now propose to kill everyone in sight, including Web and Soledad, unless they have returned to them not a bejeweled falcon but a hijacked truckload of almonds that Jamie has stolen. Here, halfway through the novel, Web sums up some of his woes:

"The thing about getting beat up twice, spending big chunks of time cleaning up other people's blood, seeing your dad for the first time in two years, getting in a fight with your best friend, and having sex with someone you think you might really like a lot and then going totally psycho on her, all in a twenty-four hour period, is that it's likely to affect your judgment."

Web's poor judgment and Huston's manic humor enliven nearly every page of the novel. Near the start, in the tattoo parlor, a young woman is "frozen on the table . . . a thin stream of tears running from her eyes," while Web's friend uses a "Glover Bulldog clamp locked on the tip of the girl's nipple" to achieve the piercing that will permit the insertion of a jewel. When Web is not assisting in this procedure he reads "about a scene in a movie called Amputee where a guy has his eyes gouged out and his toes are amputated by the bad guy and sewn into his empty eye sockets."

Elsewhere, we meet Web's parents. His mother, Theodora, spends her time growing and smoking marijuana and baking pies at her Wild Blackberry Pie Farm in Oregon. Web's father, L.L. Crows, once a successful Hollywood script doctor ("Coppola tapped him to adapt Travels With Charley") and now an embittered, alcoholic recluse, is a memorable example of Tinseltown's ups and downs. Soledad's mom was a prostitute who worked her way up to porn movies. The novel is, among other things, a supremely caustic but not unrealistic look at Hollywood's dark side.

Charlie Huston has for several years been one of the best-kept secrets in American fiction; this novel might move him into the mainstream. If you believe that the world is mad -- a position that with each passing day becomes easier to accept -- "The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death" will provide welcome support for your view. The novel had me laughing out loud many times, but of course, like all the best comic fiction ("Catch-22" and "Portnoy's Complaint" come to mind), at bottom it is deadly serious. Life is violent, messy and all too short, and laughter is the best revenge.

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