For all intents and purposes, it's pretty clear from the book jacket that Gray Matter, by local author Nick Pirog, is a crime novel. Just the cover, which features a red, black and white color scheme and a stylized illustration of the Seattle skyline, was enough for me to guess it even before I read the synopsis, and that sealed it. The bare-bones plot: Thomas Prescott, the protagonist, finds a body floating in a cove behind his boyhood home -- "but not just any body."
So it was intriguing -- and confounding -- that chapter 21 contained not even the smallest reference to crime.
In a way, one-chapter book reviews are kind of like solving a mystery: Based on a small cross-section of available evidence -- let's call it a fingerprint -- one must deduce the machinations of the plot, draw conclusions on character and writing style and apply those conclusions somehow to contextualizing the narrative at hand. It was fitting, then, that my first straight-ahead crime novel would present me with my toughest mystery yet.
Chapter 21 opens at a bingo hall with two characters who more or less carry the narrative: one really old guy (his "Cinnabon-sized ear" and "blue, black, purple, and red veins spider-webbed across the pasty flesh," plus the bingo hall, are all indications) named Harold and a first-person narrator who remains nameless throughout the chapter -- and, weirdly, of indeterminate sex, but we'll get to that later.
After bingo and lunch, Harold and the narrator go to feed the ducks, except it's winter, and there aren't any ducks. The scene Pirog sets up here is fairly indicative of what is perhaps the chapter's (and maybe the book's) biggest problem: Pirog is effective at drawing pathos from the situations he puts his characters in; the problem is that those situations often feel contrived. Here, after being given a couple of slices of white bread by the waitress from lunch (she leaves them with Harold without anybody asking, implying this is habitual), the two characters go down to the pond. Let's take a look:
The bread would land softly on the glass water, tiny rivulets spreading outward from it, small foothills on a desolate blue.
The ducks never came. Gone south for the winter. I looked at the old form taking the deep inhales on the oxygen tank beside me. I think part of him knew he would never see the ducks again.
There's some weight in those few sentences; it's a pretty poignant scene. Even still, there's a question hanging above it: Why go feed the ducks if you know it's winter and there aren't going to be any ducks? And furthermore, isn't an old guy feeding ducks that will never come laying it on a little thick?
From there, the chapter moves into Harold telling stories about the war, narrated in italics in the third person, with the first-person narrator injecting commentary via conversation with Harold here and there. The story is about Harold's adaptation to the army and his love affair, via letter, with a girl back in the states, culminating in Harold's confession of his love and her reciprocation. Toward the end of the chapter, we find Harold keeps that love letter in his sock -- again, a little thick (that's also where the spider-webbed veins come in). Upon extracting said letter from his sock and reading it, Harold becomes visibly emotional.
I felt like I was watching something, seeing something, I knew I shouldn't be. Like when you accidentally flip to something in the 660s on television.
Which is a simile that's just confusing. It does, however, lead us to my final point: With the television-related simile as just one example, throughout the chapter, the narrator reads as male -- his attitude toward Harold is one of commiseration and interest, as opposed to the more sympathetic treatment a female perspective might offer. Which is all fine and dandy, until, at the end of the chapter, this happens:
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I reached out my hand and slid it beneath the cold fingers. They slowly awakened, intertwining between mine. We held hands like that for awhile. Waiting for the ducks to return.
Okay. I'm defeated. Not only am I not even sure this is a crime novel anymore, I can't even determine the sex of the narrator -- and if that's the case, I can hardly be expected to come to any conclusions about the book as a whole. Certainly, this chapter was heavy-handed in spots, but it also appears as if I happened to pick a particularly heavy chapter, so it's hard to say; Pirog's writing is also quick and absorbing -- even with so little context, and not even counting the possible homoerotic cliffhanger of the ending, the narrative drew me in. For a crime novel, Pirog's got the right tone and the right snap; it's just that this chapter wasn't really crime-novel related. Perhaps I caught the book where it was just in a little over its head.
But then again, I'm no detective.