Monday, October 5, 2015

Death of the Man With a Thousand Faces

Allen Eskens, The Guise of Another

A fluke accident kills James Putnam on a midnight Minneapolis byway, everything seems normal. Putnam lived quietly, made no waves, and vanished as noiselessly as he lived. Except a crooked trial lawyer discovers that the deceased isn’t James Putnam. Now disgraced detective Alexander Rupert, busted to Frauds Division, has a genuine mystery to unravel. And fake James Putnam’s lies may only represent the merest shadow of the real horror.

Allen Eskens’ second novel provides an interesting dualism. His concept, about the ways everybody assumes false identities, brims with potential. As Detective Rupert investigates fake Putnam, he also struggles with his own pending corruption investigation. He confronts his possibly unfaithful wife. His wife strives to appear rich, and failing that, strives to act single. Distraught, Rupert vanishes into fake Putnam’s mysterious girlfriend, who appears strangely un-bereaved.

But while Eskens proffers this interesting theme, he writes in very prosaic, declarative tones. Nearly every scene of dialog involves two people in a room. Virtually all exposition comes in blocks, many of which take up entire chapters (which are very short, averaging barely four pages). Eskins describes Rupert’s discovery of his wife’s likely infidelity in the same blunt tones as a witness in a prior chapter describing a fifteen-year-old crime.

This creates tension between Eskens’ smart, rich themes, and his leaden storytelling. Eskens’ press bio says he’s enjoyed a twenty-year defense attorney career, which probably explains plenty. Lawyers strive to excise ambiguity and subjectivity from language, creating something everyone can agree upon as clearly defined, the dialect known as “legal-ese.” In this novel, as in business contracts, all meaning exists, immune from debate, right at the surface.

Allen Eskens
Not that that’s always bad. This actually serves the subplot regarding Rupert’s pending corruption investigation. Thought caught in an overly broad dragnet, Rupert must nevertheless prove his innocence versus his blatantly corrupt ex-partner. Rupert’s brother Max, a senior detective, coaches Rupert in answering questions in ways that crafty lawyers cannot entrap him later. It forces Rupert into domains of honesty that make him deeply uncomfortable.

But elsewhere, this law-minded approach doesn’t work equally well. Eskens describes a world divided into camps of good and evil. Rupert, a Medal of Valor winner before his disgrace, is undeniably good. Eskens pits him against a ruthless assassin, Drago Basta, who is undeniably bad. Not only does Eskens describe Drago’s ruthless glee in violence, and his first-resort reliance on killing, he explicitly describes Drago as having “no soul.”

Even excepting the theological implications of such nonsense, this Manichean gulf rings hollow. As Eskens unspools Drago’s personal history, I felt remarkable sympathy. Born amid violence, he survived by wits, grit, and refusal to let fear rule him. But after the war ended, the tools that kept him alive proved maladaptive to peacetime. In another novel, possibly by William Morrell, Drago would’ve been the protagonist, or a worthy antihero anyway.

Sadly, this represents Eskens’ entire approach. His story occupies entirely black-and-white ethical space, exemplified by characters’ names. The brother Rupert considers the ultimate barometer of goodness and order is named Max. As James Putnam’s wall of lies collapses, the investigation turns to someone named Jericho Pope. (Men with JP initials are weirdly common.) And Rupert battles Drago Basta, whose name is an obvious cognate for “Dragon Bastard.”

I wanted to like this book. I persevered through Eskens’ laboured prose, perforated with chapters so short you could practically see the camera cuts and crossfades, because I found his premise interesting. I wanted to see how he’d continue unpacking his themes of dishonesty, false faces, and the gap between who we want to be and how others receive us. Eskens’ ideas are, without qualification, quite good.

But his writing is a blunt instrument. He doesn’t tease out the implications of his themes, leading his audience on a journey; he declares the discoveries and their points. At times, as with Drago Basta’s morally ambiguous backstory, Eskens’ attempts to steer our perceptions (“he felt the last trace of his soul leave his body”) made me balk. I wanted to scream: that’s not what your story actually says!

Perhaps this book works for audiences who prefer to exclude ambiguity. Perhaps some readers like being told what to think. But Eskens’ committed core audience reads mysteries and thrillers regularly, and would, I believe, prefer authors who take them on a journey. This is less like exploring Eskens’ world, more like a theme park attraction, everything prescreened and controlled. I reached the end, put the book down, and merely shrugged.

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