Do Tell HotelReview by Kevin Riordan
The Hotel of Irrevocable Acts by Carl Watson
Autonomedia, Unbearable Books, 2008, $14.95
To read Carl Watson’s novel is to put on a pair of X-Ray glasses that do not stop at the skin, but go on to eviscerate instead of titillate, the literary equivalent of the Swedish film Travis Bickle takes his date to. From the first line, I thought I had a handle to grasp this book first published in French a decade ago: a new Jim Thompson, whose first person anti-confessionals were cherished in France and nearly neglected here, like so many other tough paperback original authors, like David Goodis, Chester Himes, or Charles Williams. This contrarian thwarted and eluded that grasp in no time. The book is as free of cliché as it is of guideposts, as he resolutely qualifies every line that might put things in the light, until, like diamonds in a seam of coal, he plants a gem of faceted brilliance.
After a succinct rant at our penchant for blaming everything on everybody, we find “Turn on the TV any day of the week and you get to see your DNA at work.” His juicy language is pungent and poetic but far from flowery. It’s of a kind that can’t be brought home to mother, or taught in college, and to even put its like in an assignment today would get you profiled and detained.
I could speculate that while in utero, the author’s mother was traumatized by either a big fish or a double feature of Roger Corman’s artist/killer/beatsploitation gem Bucket of Blood and Touch of Evil, wherein Orson Welles portrays an exemplar of depravity while maintaining total control of the direction. If you’re looking for graphic gestational metaphors, you’ll find a whole chapter of them, serving, like Esther’s Nose Job, to eliminate the casual reader.
Once we have established the rough setting of protagonist Jack’s young life, and his conversational tone has tempted you to forget he has (purportedly) killed someone, the subject is nothing less than the eternal wrestling match between thought and reality, a hot potato in Jack’s hands. Of course, there is a ripping, sometimes tense story, and it involves vivid characters engaged in irrevocable and misbegotten acts; but I came to see the whole book, even when the subject was two broken-bottle wielding drunks rolling in the gutter, as a straightforward description of storytelling itself. “Here the left side of the brain creates stories in response to the attempts of the right side to discern narrative sense from raw data.”
At about halfway through, we leave off grappling with reality long enough to dissect a specimen of it, a portrait of Uptown Chicago in the 70’s so vivid you will smell it. “All the windows in the building seemed like tombs, etched with epithets of human behavior.” This ambience is also conveyed eerily by Kit Boyce’s cover painting. Except for a few chapters like this, the world of the novel is so internal that someone just walking down the street seems like a squadron taking off in formation.
When the voice, person or narration changes, the pitch is invariably heightened, the disappointment with the failure of reality more keen, but the casual wisdom of those sudden lines is still there. “The present is as absent as the past.”
If you’ll bear with me for one more allusion (now), the compelling conclusion brought to mind Sontag’s Death Kit, whose narrator may be lying, delusion, homicidal or all three, but we go along willingly as wholly believable death comes to life on the page.
Kevin Riordan is an artist and working slob who lives in Chicago. www.kevinriordan.com