Rivers of Gold by Adam Dunn

October 25, 2010 at 12:17 pm (ARC, book review, books, fiction, mystery & suspense, New York, novels, reading, suspense/thriller)

It’s 2013 and the Big Apple has finally rotted to the core. Besieged by mass unemployment, race riots, declining property values, and a thriving criminal underground, New York City is no longer the land of opportunity. The only jobs that offer any kind of security are illegal, and the crime lords have new immigrants and recent college graduates lined up around the corner looking to get in on the action. Luckily, Renny got in on the ground floor. A fashion photographer by day and drug dealer by night, Renny moves contraband through the underground party circuit using a network of taxi cabs as his cover. But little does he know Officer Santiago of the NYPD,  working undercover as a cab driver, is hot on Renny’s tail. But Santiago isn’t interested in a little fish like Renny. He’s looking to bust Renny’s boss, Reza, before his criminal enterprise takes over the entire City.

Though the blurb on the cover promises “a mile a minute, kick-ass blast of tech noir,” that isn’t what first time novelist Adam Dunn delivers in Rivers of Gold. While he’s got the noir part down, Dunn still has a lot to learn about pacing and character development.

The first two-thirds of the novel flow like molasses. Full of unnecessary back story, and multiple information dumps that take the form of extended monologues that sound completely unnatural coming from the mouths of dope heads and police officers, Dunn saves all the high-octane action for the final third of Rivers of Gold. Unfortunately, all the tension he builds in the last few chapters of the book only lead to an average pay off.

Neither of the two main characters are strong enough to carry a novel. They reminded me of the cookie cutter characters present in most post-Jerry Orbach episodes of “Law & Order”. Renny is a dealer who thinks he’s hot shit but isn’t half as smart or cunning as he believes himself to be, and Santiago is a gruff but fair cop whose entire goal in life is to make detective. Neither of them are fleshed out any fuller than that, and because of it (cue broken record), I couldn’t bring myself to care about what happened to either of them.

Dunn is also very self-conscious in his writing. Rivers of Gold is full of sentences such as this one found on page 107, “His epiphany came in a climactic expectoration of enlightenment that nearly asphyxiated his cokehead consort.” As you can see, Dunn is so busy showcasing his ability to employ fifty cent words and alliteration he fails to deliver any actual meaning. Rivers of Gold is overrun by sentences like this.

Though I think Dunn might have been better off leaving Rivers of Gold in the proverbial trunk, there were aspects of the narrative that I found engaging. Though Renny himself is a flat character, Dunn imbued him with a very distinctive voice that was always interesting to read. I also noticed that the pace and overall tone of individual scenes improved the more characters Dunn introduced into them. Obviously, there’s something there. With a little more time and practice, Dunn probably could write the kind of pulsing narrative Rivers of Gold wanted, but failed, to be.

The verdict: Leave Rivers of Gold on the shelf; check in with Adam Dunn when his second or third novel comes out.

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Perfume by Patrick Suskind

February 9, 2010 at 11:44 am (fiction, historical fiction, literature, mixed bag, novels, suspense/thriller)

Born with an acute sense of smell but no biologically produced body odor of his own, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille experiences the world through his nose. He knows every person, animal, shop, and street in Paris by their unique scent.

This peculiar gift drives Father Terrier, the monk under whose guardianship Grenouille was placed as an infant, to turn him over to Madame Gaillard who runs a boarding house for abandoned children, fearing if he does not rid himself of Grenuouille the boy will sniff out all of his sins. It is what leads Madame Gaillard, after years of caring for all Grenouille’s physical needs, to sell him to a tanner named Grimal as a child laborer, sensing that there is something not quite right about him. It is what convinces local perfumer Giuseppe Baldini to hire him away from Grimal so that he may use Grenouille’s talents for his own gain.

Grenouille’s entire identity is built upon his ability to mentally catalogue and re-create scents. He remembers each and every smell he has ever encountered. He dissects them, reducing each complex odor to its individual components. Without a home or even a compassionate guardian Grenouille’s sense of smell is the only thing he can truly rely on. It anchors him in an increasingly unpredictable world. But it isn’t enough for Grenouille to experience every scent in existence. He wants to be loved and admired for his talent, and vows to earn that admiration by creating the most irresistible perfume ever.

This allegorical tale about the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler is hypnotic in its depravity. Honestly, I’m not a big fan of allegory. I think it is easier and more enjoyable to probe a text when the subject matter is clear. Perfume, however, is so deftly written it can be enjoyed as the allegory that it is, or simply as a story of suspense. There are depths to mine if the reader wishes to, but it is not cricual to do so.

Grenouille is your run of the mill sociopath. He hates everyone and hasn’t an ounce of love or compassion in him. He values people for what they can do to help him reach his ultimate goal, that’s all. I can’t say I liked Grenouille, but even so, I wanted to know what would happen to him. I found his heartlessness and single-minded determination fascinating.

The book is full of people just as despicable as Grenouille. Madame Gaillard treats the children under her care with cool indifference, her only goal in life to save up enough money to buy an annuity so she might grow old and die in private rather than in the cramped Hotel-Deu as her husband did. Grimal purposely leaves the most hazardous tasks to child laborers as they are more disposable than skilled workers. Baldini, a master perfumer though he is, is barely competent and owes most of his success to the ingenuity of others. None of them are the least bit likable, yet I could not put the book down. I had to know what happened to them.

And what happens is grusome. Every life that Grenouille touches comes to a bad end. Madame Gaillard dies of old age in the Hotel-Deu just as she feared she would. Grimal drowns in a river after passing out drunk on the shore. Baldini’s house collapses while he’s asleep inside. Each is destroyed by their obsessions and punished for their sins. Call him Grenouille or call him Hitler, either way he can be seen as the personification of our worst human impulses. His behavior and the way others react to it shed light on aspects of the human psyche we’d rather ignore.

Suskind’s decision to tell the story in a dramatic third person voice distances the reader from the story. I never felt as if I were in the story or observing it like a fly on the wall. I was always very aware of being spoken to. This deliberate stylistic choice allows Suskind to manipulate the reader, making him feel emotionally removed from the story as it grows ever more bizarre and disturbing. 

It wasn’t until the explosive finale that I realized what Suskind was up to. He made me enjoy a story full of morally corrupt people, told it in a way that made me feel indifferent to behaviors that should have repelled me. He drew me in and, in doing so, made me an accomplice to the depravity. He turned me into a witness who did nothing to stop the crime. I got the feeling Suskind wanted me to feel guilty for having enjoyed the book, just as all of Germany continues to be made to feel guilty for allowing the rise of Nazism.

Though I was unable to emotionally invest in the novel, and that reduced the amount of enjoyment I got out of it, Perfume is worth reading, if only to admire the masterful technique with which Suskind weaves his tale and manipulates the reader.

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