Set in the grime of the Reagan era, Pike, Benjamin Whitmer’s debut novel, is the story of a small-time low-life that most, including himself, consider irredeemable. Pike has more than a few skeletons in his closet; he’s got a whole cemetery. When the novel begins, he is wasting away what remains of his life in Nanticonte, a hick town outside Cincinnati. Here he has peace, of a sort. Stability, at least. But that peace is ruptured by the arrival of his granddaughter from Cincinnati, whose mother, Pike’s daughter, is a recently deceased crack whore whose rotting corpse has been used as a sperm receptacle by the neighbourhood drug addicts.
Meanwhile, a dirty cop called Derrick, who runs whores and crack in the crime-ridden Over-the-Rhine area of the city, kicks off a race riot by gunning down a teenage boy. Pike suspects that Derrick had something to do with his daughter’s death, so he and his friend Rory, an amateur boxer dreaming of the big time, set out to discover the truth and, if needs be, exact revenge.
So begins a picaresque journey through the different levels of Cincinnati society, as Pike and Rory invade crack houses, shanty towns, rehab centres and middle-class living rooms in pursuit of Derrick. The plot lurches from confrontation to confrontation, and every one is expertly rendered. The most effective are those that pit our heroes against ordinary decent people. I found myself thrown outside the ethical world of the plot, thinking what it would be like to be confronted with a pair of hulking brutes like Pike and his sidekick. It was disconcerting to find myself coming down on the side of these bloodthirsty bottom-feeders and their maniacal mission. Like them, I was infected with contempt for the soft-fleshed wrapped-in-cotton-wool white-collar world.
Whitmer’s style is classic noir. He is an adept of the fizzling simile, the influence of Chandler hanging conspicuously from his sleeve. At one point, “the stars above flicker like knife holes of light punched through a black curtain.” The narrative is shot through with uncompromising imagery of the hardboiled variety. Emotionally, too, Whitmer takes no prisoners. Sentimental he is not. His characters are capable of affection, even nobility, but there is never a hint that their gentler qualities will win out. Indeed, Pike’s love for his granddaughter is the “gun” – to use one of Chuck Palahniuk’s terms – that spurs him on to commit ever greater atrocities.
I must make one criticism of the edition. As I read Pike, I had a growing feeling that the editing process was not as rigourous as it might have been. There are lots of typos. In one passage, Whitmer describes the picture on the cover of a book that lies “open on the coffee table.” Surely if the book was lying open the picture on the cover would be obscured, but that’s no matter. These are minor slips, and ones for which the reader makes silent correction.
These small deficiencies do not detract in any way from the experience of the novel, however. It remains an impressive achievement, a tightly plotted, fast paced nightmare. I emerged from it like a fish out of water, startled, gasping to get back in.