Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Allan Guthrie - Hard Man

"It's okay, Davey," Pearce said to the kid. "The bad man's gone." He closed his eyes. He was a liar. The bad men were never gone. (p. 268)

Allan Guthrie’s third novel is tight, fast, and raw. Hard Man is, to put it bluntly, a book about stupid, violent people doing stupid, violent things.

Do you ever find yourself imagining the absolute worst way that something could play out? If so, I’m sorry to inform you that Guthrie is far better at it than you will ever be. We start off with a simple situation: married May Baxter’s pregnant, but not with her husband’s child. In order to escape her spouse’s violence, she flees back to her family. From that point on, things get worse in every possible way. Every gesture, action, and plan leads to things only spiraling even further out of control.

Hard Man is a book of two paces: the contemplative and the berserk. Things start for Gordon Pearce in the first of them. He spends his day in a passive daze, his only activity taking his three legged dog to the beach. He has no friends and no aspirations. Though he is no longer a young man, and though he’s most certainly a hard man, he’s still trying to come to grips with existence as a free man and with his mother now long gone, the (male) dog with her name an attempt to fill the hole that she left.

Balanced with Pearce is the tale of the Baxter family. Elderly Jacob Baxter is determined to force Wallace to stay away, which shouldn’t be too hard a task for him, his two sons, and his friend, Norrie. Unfortunately, Jacob’s can do worldview is curbstomped within the first few pages of the novel. On their walk to Wallace’s home, he’s confident that the Baxters cannot be stopped: They were all tooled up, they'd handle Wallace no problem, reputation or not. He was only one man against three, and those three were Baxters. (p. 4). Now, dragging himself away, he’s been humbled – but he’ll still do whatever it takes to stop Wallace.

Of course, there’s the fact that Wallace is far stronger than they are, the fact that the police are (after the Baxter family’s disastrous attempted assault) solidly on Wallace’s side, the fact that family friend Norrie is far more mentally impaired than he appears, and the fact that Jacob's eldest son might not be the bouncer that he claims he is. But Jacob resolutely ignores the warning signs. He has a duty to his family, and he’ll be damned if he doesn’t carry it out.

Jacob Baxter isn’t the only character who doesn’t quite grasp the way that things are. It’s a bit of a cliché to say that nothing is as it seems, but the phrase is rarely as true as it is here. Things look straightforward, but they are, of course, far more complicated than they appear. Climactic confrontations are often met with confusion, and dramatic reveals generally just succeed in making things messier and more confusing than they were moments before.

As the novel continues, and every plothread does its best to run off in its own direction as fast as it possibly can, things lean increasingly toward the latter of the two aforementioned pacings: the frantic. Hard Man is told from several point of views, and each of their scenes is brief, here, while the various characters act decisive in all the worst ways.

Guthrie does not spare his characters the consequences of their actions; instead, every mistake is magnified, its toll taken in injuries and tragedies. The cast is too small for a particularly high body count, but Guthrie bashes his pieces together again and again until there isn’t much left of their original shape, and the deaths that do occur are always utterly and mercilessly senseless.

Guthrie depicts his novel’s visceral violence with a clear, uncluttered prose style that’s packed with character and slang. Descriptions of beaches and people give the novel a Scottish flair that’s augmented with the language, shoving us in the center of the lowest, most dangerous neighborhoods of Guthrie’s neighborhood and never losing its wry humor:

Pearce's towel had flown off, dropped to the floor. He relaxed. Well, as much as he could, given that he was bullock-naked in front of a pair of strange men. Young men. Who clearly weren't here to ask after his health. At least they weren't naked, too. That would have been really uncomfortable. (p. 7)

The outside world around our characters is a distant thing. Civilization is present, but it's always nearby, never on the scene itself. Decent areas of town are only a few blocks away, and the scent of barbecues reaches us where we are, but we can never get there, and the only times the novel departs from its primary cast is to show briefly panoramic views of sin all around them, rapes and assaults taking place in newspapers and the streets around their homes.

In the midst of the book’s escalation, Guthrie takes one of the major plot threads and slams it into an imprisoned stasis. The change of pace and the situation, especially when balanced by the rest of the cast outside, is excellent, but it’s also here that the novel’s two weaknesses occur.

The first is comparatively minor, more a missed opportunity than a weakness in and of itself. At one point, a character is fed an obscene amounts of hallucinogenics. Unfortunately, the results turn out to be the same lackluster lines that we’ve all heard before in a dozen pot-baked comedies.

The more serious problem is the book’s supposed villain, Wallace. The build up against him is well done, and his mixture of innocence and depravity is captivating, but the few glimpses we get of the man’s core do little to answer our questions. Wallace is frightening precisely because of the contrast between his normality and his actions, but there’s nothing that we see of him, either in his point of view or outside it, to explain what could have led him to such sadistic heights, leaving one of the book’s most horrific scenes feeling almost out of character.

But such problems do little to damage the narrative as a whole. Hard Man is, to quote a certain Bay Area thrash band, good friendly violent fun. With emphasis on the fun. And on the violent.

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