Here’s one way to distinguish literary fiction from genre fiction: In genre writing, the action is in the plot; in literary, the action is in the prose.
Christopher Bollen, editor at large at Interview magazine, reveals a graceful prose style in his literary thriller “The Destroyers.” Sharp imagery and incisive descriptions bring to life both the Greek island of Patmos and the moneyed class laying claim to it: tourists “lingering between states of hangover and hunger,” “ochre bodies fashionably starved” and dancers swaying in “slow, narcotic movements.” Heat pours through “the white hole of noon,” and on the Aegean, “darkened yachts look like flies crawling on raw, blue meat.”
As the images and commentary suggest, paradise isn’t quite what it seems, especially amid Greece’s austerity crisis and an influx of Syrian refugees. Patmos is also where the Book of Revelation was written, drawing “Apocalypse freaks, death heads . . . hoping to catch the last gnarly wave to the end of the world.”
Ian Bledsoe, the book’s narrator, comes to Patmos at the end of his rope. Cut from his estranged father’s will, he stole from the family coffers, and he’s dogged by rumors about his involvement with incendiary activists in Panama. With no inheritance and no job prospects, he has no one to turn to except his old schoolmate Charlie, scion of the ultrawealthy Konstantinous family, who’s running his own yacht rental business.
Ian and Charlie were best friends, bonding as children of privilege, and the novel’s title comes from Destroyers, their childhood role-playing game: “a group of gunmen in black balaclavas (number variable) bursts into the room and starts shooting. What do you do?” Their morbid adolescent fantasies provided “strategies for survival.”
Real gunmen do eventually show up, and violence occasionally punctuates this otherwise leisurely plot. A burst of mayhem closes the tour de force prologue, and another pair of bodies appears nearly 200 pages later. But the tension in Ian’s own story is more existential. Devoted and indebted to Charlie, Ian agrees to tell a small lie to Charlie’s starlet girlfriend, then to the authorities — a lie that “must be watered and pruned and fed” and which quickly tests the conflicting demands of loyalty, ethics and self-protection. The suspense here is less high-speed chases or chapter-ending cliffhangers than something out of Patricia Highsmith — hardly a complaint.
“Every day the world blows up, quietly, one life at a time,” Ian reflects, “and each life already holds among its clutter the bomb and the switch, the germ that could detonate, the dark secret not yet revealed.”
Ultimately, the destroyers aren’t men in balaclavas, but something interior, more insidious: the secrets you carry.
Art Taylor is a professor of English at George Mason University and the author of “On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories.”
By Christopher Bollen
Harper. 496 pp. $27.99