Book review of Dave Zeltserman's 'Pariah'

By Maureen Corrigan
Monday, November 9, 2009


By Dave Zeltserman

Serpent's Tail. 280 pp. Paperback, $14.95

What a sick puppy of a writer Dave Zeltserman is! I didn't think a suspense story could get any more dark and twisted than Zeltserman's pulp masterpiece of last year, "Small Crimes." In that nasty little immorality tale, a crooked ex-cop bent on redemption gets released from prison and finds out that nobody -- not his ex-wife, not his young daughters, not even his elderly parents -- wants him back. The kicker is that they're right. By the end of "Small Crimes," I was wrung out thanks to the ingeniousness of Zeltserman's nonstop plot twists and the stark meanness of his universe. Now comes "Pariah," a doozy of a doom-laden crime story that not only makes merry with the justice system, but also satirizes those bottom feeders in the publishing industry who would sign Osama bin Laden to a six-figure contract for his memoirs, if only they could figure out which cave to send their lawyers into. If there's any other young writer out there who does crime noir better than Zeltserman, I don't even want to know. As it is, I can barely handle reading him without altogether losing whatever faith I've got left in humanity.

The antihero of this latest excursion into the underside is Kyle Nevin, a former heavyweight in the South Boston Irish mob. Eight years earlier, Kyle was set up by his former boss, Red Mahoney, to be murdered during a big bank heist; but fate smiled on Kyle, and another guy took the fatal bullet instead. Now, just released from eight years in the slammer, Kyle is out for revenge, sniffing out Mahoney the way a half-starved bloodhound would catch the scent of an underdone Big Mac. As is required in any work of crime noir worth its grit, we readers see the world through Kyle's bloodshot eyes. And here lies Zeltserman's particular brilliance: As a murderous sociopath, Kyle, like his predecessors in the Zeltserman lineup, is so boisterous in his self-justifications (for everything from breaking the little finger of a litterbug to kidnapping a sickly child to burning alive a close relative in his bed) that a reader can't help but laugh at the fervent illogic of it all. Here, for instance, Kyle describes the way he and his reluctant younger brother, Danny, steal a laptop from an unsuspecting "mark" who has just left an upscale Boston coffeehouse:

"I grabbed for the laptop and as the mark realized what was going on and tried to pull back, Danny was out of the car and clocking him on the side of the head with the brick. . . . The reality of the situation, the guy was no more than a hundred and sixty pounds soaking wet, and a slap on the side of the head with an open palm would've done the trick, but I was glad to see Danny use the brick. Not that I cared whether or not some effeminate mochachino-swilling yuppie had his head bashed in, but that type of violence was what I needed to bring the old Danny back."

In Kyle's perspective, the robbery serves as a terrific therapeutic exercise for Danny. And the really sick thing is that the scene is so brazenly buoyant that the reader gets carried along with the moment, too. Hooray! The Nevin Brothers are back! Bad luck for the yuppie who was just at the wrong place at the wrong time, but a good break for Danny and Kyle, who commit the assault in broad daylight on a Boston street, without any witnesses around.

The thing about luck, though, is that it always changes. After that aforementioned kidnapping goes haywire, Kyle dodges another jail term with the help of a principled defense attorney who can barely stand to breathe in his tainted presence. Then, he's offered a fabulous book deal to write a true-crime "fictional novel" of how the kidnapping might have gone down. (Zeltserman is obviously exacting some comic revenge on members of the publishing profession who, like their mobster counterparts, are always trolling for "the big one" and training their beady eyes on the bottom line.) Kyle is set up with a book packager who's supposed to help him bang out the novel in two months. Oprah, the bestsellers lists, European book tours and Hollywood await. Trouble is, Kyle's luck turns. He comes down with a nasty case of writer's block. That's just the very beginning of a long, loopy downward slide into the abyss.

I'd say Zeltserman can't top "Pariah" for its sheer diabolical inventiveness, but he probably will. And given that the corrupting vision of his work is so powerful, I ought to know better than to read the next novel he writes. But I probably will anyway.

Corrigan, the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air," teaches a course on detective fiction at Georgetown University.

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