There is promise for Jason Starr, but this book doesn’t quite get in touch with it yet.
In what is supposedly a noir-thriller setting, one encounters David Sussman, a successful advertising agent with (of course) a less-than-successful personal life. He never sees his daughter, his trophy wife is in the binges of an eating disorder, and his mistress Amy Lee is threatening to expose their desk-riding affair unless he divorces his wife and marries her. In a related story, Joey DePino has just lost the daily double at the track due to a technicality. Of course, he is deep in the hole, and, of course, he is bound only to get deeper in with Morty, a bookie with Yiddish so weak that Josef Mengele would have had a better chance of getting through a bar mitzvah. Joey’s wife, Maureen, is old friends with David Sussman’s bulimic Leslie, which hooks together our string of paper doll characters, allowing this thriller (comedy? noir spectacle?) to proceed.
But there is little happening of note. Amy Lee is a nemesis about as daunting as a Care Bear. At least, each Care Bear had a symbol on its belly to let you know what its special power of pleasure was. Amy Lee may follow Leslie Sussman to the supermarket and leave unsigned packages of blank audio tape for the unsuspecting wife in attempt to show David how easy it would be to ruin his life, but there is little about her that makes her seem much of a threat. Joey DePino is a drab compulsive gambler. His one interesting moment â€“ his fantasy about living somewhere where he can own a car so he doesn’t have to take the bus to the track. The closest he comes to redemption â€“ his wife Maureen reveals that she married him because she was better-looking than him and he was uneducated.
As for David, his marital affair and general middle-age crisis prove unentertaining and drab. When Joey pulls in an old buddy of his named Billy Balls for a quick money scam, the reader can practically hear the pounding of the last few tacks into an obscenely vacuous coffin.
Starr seems to pick characters and situations into which he can barely show any insight. Amy Lee’s obsession is unmotivated, David Sussman’s midlife crisis mediocre and boring, and Maureen DePino’s realization that she is still attractive enough to have an affair echoes of a sentimental made-for-Lifetime movie. What prove more interesting are those moments that seem to actually be digging at that fantastic conundrum known as character. In the middle of an argument about his gambling problem, Joey decides that he is too tired to argue a point Maureen makes because it will only result in more screaming, and he simply doesn’t want more of that at the moment. In the midst of his trouble, David Sussman decides that, if he beats a unknown fat man on the street in a walking contest, everything will turn out all right. These small moments become much more highly charged than stereotypical gambling addiction or hackneyed Yiddish. Jason Starr seems as though he’d rather be handling the broad strokes, when in fact his true strength may be in the more subtle brushwork. The end of the novel, for instance, leaves a wonderfully intriguing sense of justice. Like a spaghetti western or Alex Cox film, who remains standing, who succeeds and who fails, becomes something to watch for. The last moment questions how success is measured and how the characters with the bull’s-eyes on their souls have earned them. If this is one of the highlights of noire, Starr is doing very well at it, but the ride he offers to get us to that moment, while not bumpy, does not make for terribly interesting sightseeing.