There are the laws of man, and then there are the laws of mankind.
Richard Thomas’s Disintegration is a noir novel with roots in Chandler and Himes, but with the modern psychological ambition and sledgehammer vigilantism of Richard Price and Dennis Lehane. And like any of the afore mentioned scribes of darkness and depravity, Thomas pulls no punches in depicting the slow gutting of a man already cleaved in two by the death of his wife and two kids in a car accident. A man who wallows in a Spartan apartment, buttressed and razed by narcotics called “Happy” and “Sad,” awaiting missions via manila envelopes slipped under his door by his employer, a reedy, hawk-nosed Russian gangster named Vlad.
Author of Transubstantiate and Staring into the Abyss, as well as editing the recent anthologies The New Black and Exigencies, Richard Thomas has successfully crafted a narrator with no name, an everyman who dresses and acts the parts necessary to undertake his missions, which are murders at the behest of Vlad. Are the authorized victims Vlad’s enemies? Do they owe him money? Are they innocents he has the narrator murder to prove his continued loyalty?
These questions simmer in the narrator’s heart throughout.
The city of record is Chicago, but the time frame is kept deliberately vague. Thomas sprinkles in mentions of film-developing and Velcroed shoes, of movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, and The Godfather, the latter being homaged by the mention of a rolling orange as a harbinger of bloodshed.
There is violence in the air and a snarl on every set of lips I pass.
Brutality reigns from within and without in Disintegration. A cavalcade of decadent partiers, nubile femme fatales, and gambling degenerates grope into the narrator’s path from the margins, weaving in and out of his nighttime sojourns for liquor or missions, or to the tattoo parlor where he commemorates a successful kill with a new tattoo.
Much of the novel’s soul preoccupies itself with the storyteller’s vacillating sense of right-and-wrong, of being a failure as husband and father. And in a scene of literal symbolism, of being some kind of martyr—much of which could easily slip into self-pity if not for Thomas’s sensitivity in cahoots with razor-sharp prose that always re-snaps the narrator forward in thought and action.
I need to get into a fight, that’s what I need, get my head screwed on right. Punch some asshole in the face and remember why I’m here, remember what I promised my dead blood, the reason I’m not filling a grave with my hollowed-out skull.
Disintegration’s storyline echoes its title, a series of violent vignettes that are sometimes disparate, sometimes related, but because of the narrator’s scattered sense of time and periodic inebriations, always challenging to keep straight in his own mind. Replaying the final series of answering machine messages from both is wife and police subsequent to her death anchors him as it does prolong his grief and fragmentation from humanity. His only other pillars of stability are twofold: a cat named Luscious that comes and goes through a fire escape window, and a nebulous woman named Holly, who offers sex and motherly care in equal measure. Her motives are never fully explained initially, nor are they understood by the narrator himself, but as he peels back the raw scab of memory and gleans details from neighbors and seedy regulars at diners and bars, he starts to piece together a theory at the heart of his family’s death, and once embarking on a final grand guignol mission of destruction and death, of his own masculine nature.
As the dust starts to clear, the narrator is offered a tiny glint of hope—a reminder of the power of love and perseverance. But like any noir novel worth its salt-in-the-wounds, all lessons come hard-won and pitiless, with the reader equally limping away in the end with gritted teeth and squinted eyes, but with a hardier soul.
Available May 26, 2015
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