Adam Sternbergh’s eerie new novel is set in a strange community where 50 criminals live in cinder-block bungalows surrounded by a 14-foot fence on the arid plains of West Texas. They call their grim little world the Blinds, perhaps to suggest the blind leading the blind. The inmates are given books, booze and meals but denied telephones, mail or visitors, and a sheriff with a dime-store badge keeps the peace.
The residents of the Blinds are unique in that, as part of an experiment in rehabilitation, all their criminal memories have been erased. They know they’ve been bad, but they don’t know how. Although free to leave, they stay because they fear that the law, or perhaps old enemies, might await them outside the fence. Life may be dull as dishwater in the Blinds, but it’s safe.
As this story begins, a resident named Errol Colfax kills himself with a gun he wasn’t supposed to have. Next, Hubert Humphrey Gable is shot to death in the Blinds’ grubby little bar. The easy-going sheriff, Calvin Cooper, investigates this outburst of violence without success. Cal is a likable sort, but he has his secrets.
We meet others. Fran Adams is one of the few women in the Blinds and the mother of its only child, a boy of 8. She and Cal once were lovers, and he hopes to persuade her to leave so the boy can have a normal life. Cal has a deputy who was a battered wife before she took refuge in the Blinds. Dr. Judy Holliday, the elegant scientist who dreamed up the experiment, adds more mystery to the tale.
(If some of these names seem odd, it’s because, to promote anonymity, arrivals to the Blinds must choose a new name from two lists, one of movie stars and another of former vice presidents. Thus we meet the likes of Lyndon Lancaster, Spiro Mitchum and Marilyn Roosevelt. The author, like certain of his characters, has a few quirks.)
The violence grows. The sheriff confronts one man with his criminal record — “A litany of unimaginable perversion” — only to have the man, who has no memory of his crimes, insist, “That’s not me.” Cal, unconvinced, shoots him dead.
Another resident, cruelly beaten as a child, responds at age 15 by murdering his abusive father and then, when she protests, his mother. He thus began a long career as a professional killer: “The truth is, once you’ve killed your parents, there’s no one in the world you can’t kill,” the author notes. This formidable fellow fights a duel to the death with another psychopath, a newcomer whose body is covered with the tattooed faces of the 23 men, women and children he has slain. Amazingly enough, readers may find themselves rooting for the less loathsome of the two.
A celebrated California billionaire, poised to run for president, sends well-armed killers to the Blinds to eliminate one-time underlings who know too much. The once-placid community’s dusty streets are soon soaked with blood. Can Cal, who’s down to his last bullet, stop the slaughter?
Sternbergh’s characters are intriguing, his plot is suspenseful and his outlook is endearingly dark. Nice moments flash by, such as this snapshot of Cal: “A half-drunk bottle is on the table before him, and the half-drunk Cooper contemplates it.” Abruptly, he seizes the bottle and toasts himself: “Here’s to the person you might have been, and to the person you have become. May they never meet in a dark alley.”
What is the author telling us, as he parades these deplorables before our eyes? One hint arrives near the novel’s end, when the enigmatic Dr. Holliday says to Cal, “The minds of the innocent are simple and so easily explained. The minds of the guilty, however – they are endlessly fascinating.”
For Sternbergh, culture editor of New York magazine and author of “Shovel Ready,” just about all our minds are guilty and thus potentially fascinating, if not homicidal. Readers who share his dim view of humankind can embrace “The Blinds” as naughty fun, but it can also be viewed as a meditation on the ubiquity of evil. Read it and weep. Or laugh. Or both. Sternbergh is an original, grandly irreverent writer.
Patrick Anderson writes regularly about thrillers and mysteries for The Washington Post.
By Adam Sternbergh
HarperCollins. 400 pp. $26.99