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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A Classic Review of a Book that is Destined to Become a Classic

(Today, October 7, 2014 is -- more or less -- the official release date for Joe Clifford's terrific book, Lamentations. To mark the occasion, Pulp Hack Confessions is running its original 7/19/2014 advance review of the novel . . . )

By Joe Clifford
(310 pages)
(Oceanview Publishing; Oct. 7, 2014)
ISBN-10: 1608091333
ISBN-13: 978-1608091331

Full disclosure: my brother was a junkie like Chris, the protagonist's sibling in Lamentation, Joe Clifford's new novel. My sibling Tony was ten years younger than me; despite this, I spent my 58th birthday putting him underground.

He was a needle-sharing speed freak who couldn't stay out of trouble and ended up spending time in jail and at least two California prisons. I stopped by the jail in Placerville to visit Tony when our father died, but he refused to leave his cell; he said he was ashamed to have me see him dressed in county orange.

He didn't die of an overdose. Like a lot of needle-sharers, he used contaminated spikes and became a Hep C victim.

My point is, I think I know a little something about being the straight brother of a crank shooter. And from that perspective, I can tell you Clifford's book gets it exactly right: my brother may have been a dope fiend like Chris, but he was still my brother -- with all the heartbreak, love and disappointment that entails.

Lamentation is told from the perspective of Jay, Chris's younger brother. The novel is set in the fictional community of Ashton in rural New Hampshire and revolves around Jay's attempts to deal with Chris's addiction and protect him after he becomes a "person of interest" in the murder of another doper, Pete, with whom Chris operates a rag-tag computer recycling business. 

Jay has had a love-hate relationship with his older brother since their parents were killed in a car wreck. When they were younger, Jay attempted to get Chris into rehab, to clean him up and help ease him back into society; but after Chris repeatedly lapsed back into drug abuse, Jay all but wrote him off as a dope fiend and loser.

Superficially, at least, his assessment is valid: Chris is essentially homeless, augmenting his meagre earnings from the computer business by turning tricks at a local truck stop, and pulling in enough occasional income to take a room at a sordid truck stop motel that specializes in rentals by the hour.

Not that Jay is exactly a success story, himself: he makes a hand-to-mouth living clearing houses whose occupants have died, boxing up dead people's furniture and knick-knacks for his boss to sell to area antique dealers. He has a two-year-old son, Aidan, by a woman named Jenny that he is deeply in love with, but he's messed their relationship up so completely that his ex- has shacked up with a former motorcycle outlaw rather than go on living with him. His social circle consists of one really close friend -- even though he lives in the kind of pissant town where everyone knows everybody else and no one ever leaves -- and a big night out is a couple of beers at a local pub while a Bruins game flickers on the TV.

It's a lot like Placerville, California, the burg where I was born and spent my teenage years. Spend a year or so in a place like Ashton or Placerville and you stop wondering why people get strung out on drugs.

As bad as things are, they take a turn for the worse when Chris and his partner get hold of a computer hard-drive that contains compromising information someone wants buried. First Pete, the partner, is murdered, his body dumped in a pool of storm runoff. Chris tells his brother about the drive, but Chris's frequent paranoid delusions make Jay skeptical.

Then Chris goes missing, the squalid shack Jay lives in is ransacked and Jay gets his head cracked by an intruder. The responsible younger brother soon finds himself searching for his irresponsible sibling in a world populated by biker gang members, skanky truck-stop prostitutes, crooked politicians and incompetent police.

Despite its no-nonsense, hardboiled veneer, Lamentation is surprisingly tender. While the novel is essentially a crime story, at its core is the uneasy relationship between the two brothers, a relationship so fraught with doom that it colors everything else in their lives.

Renaissance man Joe Clifford (courtesy of joeclifford.com)

Clifford is the author of two other novels, Junkie Love (which will be reviewed Sunday, July 20) and Wake the UndertakerHe has written numerous short stories, is an editor at Out of the Gutter Online, and produces Lip Service West: True Stories, a regular series of readings by local authors.

He is deft in his use of description to bring his characters to life. He succeeds in making each major figure in the book unique and believable, even relatively minor ones like the local county sheriff, or the former biker who is living with Jay's ex.

And he serves up some delicious Chandleresque writing in the process. While visiting his friend Charlie's house, for example, he paints the scene indelibly:

"Charlie hadn't redecorated since his mom died, and the house retained that old-lady feel, all decor left over from the 1970s -- paisley print sofas and wagon-wheel coffee tables, shitty paintings that you could buy for a quarter at any garage sale up here because at one time or another every retiree in New Hampshire tries their hand at painting."

In another section, he describes the cheap homemade version of methamphetamine available in New England as "a science project for sleep deprived zombies," concocted from a laundry list of toxic ingredients that includes "gun bluing and industrial strength ammonia, miner's coal and jet fuel, corrosive chemicals you find under a sink. Basically, the very last kind of ingredients you want to put in your body, and this had been my brother's primary diet for years. No wonder his brains were oozing out his ears. In a few years he'd be draped in garbage bags and talking to beer cans at the bus station."

In describing Ashton, the tiny town where he lives, Jay notes that the place has legitimate businesses like Jiffy Lube and Best Buy, but adds "in between all the department outlets and national chains were still the places no one really wanted to be: cheap motels, dollar stores, military surplus shacks, knickknack and consignment shops, The Salvation Army, fast food drive-throughs, all-night gas stations."

I have had the pleasure of reading a lot of really good stories by new authors working in the neo-pulp tradition this year and Lamentation is one of the best: the writing is crisp, the plot sufficiently complex to hold the reader's interest and keep him or her off-balance, and the characters believable and fully-developed.

There is even enough mystery about what is actually going on that most the book functions as a legitimate whodunit, and the actual motive for the mayhem is not revealed until the story is nearly over.

But while Clifford's novel is a crime thriller, it is really much, much more: it is a truly excellent story of the troubled relationship between brothers, a topic that gives it additional value outside its literary genre.

Lamentation is a treat. This was one of those books I was sorry to see end.

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