"Charlie Boy" is a good novel with airtight control. Everything -- setting, plot and characterization, whether major or minor -- works and works well.
The book opens with a killer, Charlie Breaux, loose in the streets of New Orleans, the same streets where E. L. Sitwell, a rootless young black, idles day after day. Both meet Dr. Josiah Moment, a physician in town for a medical convention, an unlikely hero who, by taking charge of them, also takes charge of himself.
Author Peter Feibleman counterpaces his book. The thriller aspect of the plot is downplayed and small scenes are lingered over. As a result, we focus on what is happening to the characters as a consequence of the events rather than on the events themselves.
This is not to say that Feibleman shies away from dealing with the sensational elements of his plot. Rather, he handles them with extreme discipline, so that what we get is not murder for the sake of gory murder, but murder to illuminate the murderer's mind:
"It seemed to him at first that he was safe, and it was not until he saw the blood on the knife that he began to scream. That is, he opened his mouth, but no sound happened. Grappling with the drunk, he was not sure that he had tried to make a real noise. He couldn't seem to locate his tongue. Just then he had a bad headache and there was a thick gargling noise from somewhere and there were the man's quiet terrible eyes. And then there was nothing."
Feibleman is just as effective and just as convincing when he enters into the consciousness of the other characters, even those whose appearance is brief. Out understanding of the people we meet is complete, even when their own awareness is limited.
Feibleman's skill encompasses the setting too. Description, whether from a distance or at close range, is never effusive, but is always full, and done with a poet's precision: "The sky could turn in five minutes from white-hot to black but there was something about the river. It was lazy now, silt-down dusty all the way to the delta -- then to what New Orleans people call the True Delta, and after that the Gulf. You could smell everything in it, soil and brackish oyster shells, crab and rotting shrimp and tar from the port and green."
With sure strokes like these, Feibleman takes the reader through the city of New Orleans, through side streets, bars and bedrooms, and out into the wild reaches of the bayou, to backroad eateries, isolated homes and swamp. In the final section of the book, when the three main characters -- Moment, E. L. and Charlie -- face a hurricane, the setting is more than something that provides atmosphere. In fact, it merges with the plot.
The book also has a wide comic range. There is broad humor in the fact that the three main characters share their plight and their flight with a baby alligator named Leroy. And killer Charlie Breaux's moments of evangelistic fervor are funny, too, though because they are so believable, also frightening. fAnd consider the way Feibleman treats Dr. Moment as he tries to muster some barroom chatter:
"While the bartender and Harry waited, Moment remembered a day he had gone for a picnic with his wife. It was early in the marriage, a time when they had been unable to stay apart: what he remembered was her face, gentle and shining and urgent. They had held hands in the car and parked in some woods, undressing on a blanket surrounded by little plants with low pointed leaves and grayish berries, in the violent smell of pine and earth all around them. He saw her mouth opening under him and then he found himself looking at the bartender again." We laugh, yes, but we are also very, very moved. Incidents like these -- some puckish, some profound -- ensure that "Charlie Boy" is not a solemn book, though it is indeed a serious one.
Feibleman brings a lot of technical skill to this novel and because of that he trusts his talent and can trust us, his readers. He never over-writes, never hammers things home. Conversely, he is not fuzzy, nor obscure. We have the feeling that "Charlie Boy" never "got away from" him, that he set out to do exactly what he had done. The result is very satisfying.