Art Kavanagh

Talk about books: a fortnightly email about things I’ve read

Peter Abrahams’s impaired heroes

Oblivion, Nerve Damage and Delusion

I hadn’t heard of Peter Abrahams until I read Laura Miller’s review of Oblivion (2005) in Salon. It’s my impression that he’s not all that well known on this side of the Atlantic, though he’s a New York Times bestseller and Stephen King’s “favorite American suspense novelist”. Reviewing Oblivion in The New Yorker, Joyce Carol Oates describes his novels as “gratifyingly attentive to psychological detail, richly atmospheric, layered in ambiguity.”

At the end of the first part of Oblivion, about 80 pages in, Nick Petrov, a private detective who specializes in tracing missing children, collapses in front of the hospital where he’s been taking Amanda, the teen he’s been hired to find. When he recovers consciousness a few days later, he doesn’t remember Amanda, why he has accumulated various clues as to her whereabouts, who paid him a retainer on Friday afternoon, after he’d given evidence in a murder trial, or what he has been doing since. Most importantly, he doesn’t remember that Amanda is the daughter of Lara Deems, the final victim of the serial killer, Gerald Reasoner. Twelve years earlier, Petrov, then a police detective, had made his name and career (rather in the manner of Will Graham) by identifying and arresting Reasoner, who is now on Death Row, waiting for the outcome of a final appeal.

But Nick now has something more urgent on his mind. His collapse reveals that he has glioblastoma multiforme, a kind of brain cancer. The median survival time is just 17 weeks. Because of the brain-blood barrier, chemo can be delivered only interstitially, by way of “seven or eight” (p. 109) wafers implanted in his head. Nick is reluctant to agree to radiation therapy because he fears that it will make him confused. He has always relied on his brain.

Nick sets out to solve again the case that, apart from one significant detail, he has already solved. This time around, though, he also needs to work out a few preliminary details, such as who his client is, what he’s looking for, where has he been already and whom has he spoken to? How does he explain when he comes and asks them some of the same questions again, with no recollection of their previous answers?

He isn’t helped by the fact that Petrov made all his notes in code, which Nick can’t remember how to read. Petrov could instantly remember the route to any destination within driving distance, visualizing the roads (coloured blue on the map) as rivers and tributaries. Nick remembers that his former self had this ability but isn’t able to revive or copy it: he has to work out where he’s going by studying the map.

Inevitably, some of the handicaps under which Nick is operating are physical. He has lost weight and strength, and his right side isn’t reliable. Sometimes he has to drag his right foot — at one point he is unable to lift it off the accelerator and has to kick it off with his left, which he has been using to apply the brake.

But the changes to Nick’s cognitive faculties and personality haven’t all been for the worse. Petrov had found it useful to catalogue and learn 93 varieties of facial expression, so that he could tell when people are angry or afraid, and when they were experiencing confusion, contempt or disgust. Nick finds that he can tell instinctively what people are feeling: whether they’re friendly or hostile towards him, distrustful or worried about something else entirely. He calls this his “new sense”.

In some ways, Nick is less rational than Petrov would have been. He keeps one of the wafers that his doctor gave him (to show him what had been implanted in his brain) inside his mattress, and is superstitious about sleeping directly on top of it, in the hope that this will help to push the cancer into remission.

In general, Nick seems to be a much nicer person than Petrov was. When the doctor wants to take an MRI scan of Nick while he watches a video of Petrov giving evidence in the murder trial, Nick is shocked and appalled to see that Petrov’s decisive testimony is perjured. Somewhat more slowly than the reader, Nick begins to wonder if his former self might have been a psychopath.

Late in the story, when Nick has gone to see Reasoner in prison to see if he knows who really killed Lara, the killer’s response is “Was it you?” (p. 307). Elaine, Nick’s former detective partner and sometime lover, newly appointed Chief of Police, seems to confirm that he knew Lara (of whom he has no recollection as a living being, just as a murder victim). That he was her killer is a possibility that Nick has to consider seriously. After all, nobody but he had recognized the killer’s “calling card”, which had been found at the scene of Lara’s death, as at the six others, so who else could it have been?

The story ends inconclusively, even hopefully, with Nick not dead yet, but instead just married to Billie, a nurse who had earlier told him firmly that there was no future for them unless he was prepared to undergo radiation therapy, a condition he eventually accepted. The courtship had proceeded with unusual speed, both parties obviously understanding that Nick had very little time to waste.

Abrahams revisited the figure of the dying, weakened investigator in his next novel but one, Nerve Damage (2007). Roy Valois is a well known sculptor in his late 40s, who gets the bad news from a doctor: he has mesothelioma, a cancer caused only by exposure to asbestos. Roy has never knowingly worked with asbestos and is mystified by the news but there is no mistake about the diagnosis. The condition is inoperable (“unresectable”, p. 31) and the only possible treatment is a clinical trial whose participants have (so far) a survival rate of around 0%.

This isn’t the first time that Roy has been given bad news that he has trouble making sense of. Some 15 years earlier, not long after their marriage, his wife, Delia, was killed in a helicopter crash in Venezuela. Prompted by an off-hand remark about what might appear in his obituary, and having been told that obituaries are written (often many years) in advance so as to be ready for publication as soon as news of the subject’s death is announced, Roy asks a young computer-savvy acquaintance to hack into the New York Times’s database and see if they’ve got one for him.

They have, but there seems to be an error in it: it says that Delia had been an economist employed by the United Nations, not (as Roy knew to be the case) by an autonomous think-tank named The Hobbes Institute. Delia had been engaged in development work in Venezuela at the time of her death. Roy attempts to have this small error corrected by getting in touch with the journalist who wrote the obituary, who is initially more interested in whatever illegal means Roy may have used to get an advance look at the piece. However, the journalist is also thorough, and checks into the Hobbes Institute. Not long afterwards, the journalist is killed in an aggravated burglary at his home.

Roy soon discovers that there’s no trace of the Hobbes Institute ever having existed, that Delia hadn’t been in Venezuela, that her ostensible boss at the nonexistent think-tank, Tom Parish, had lied to him and was engaged in some kind of clandestine activity in Washington and that the people he’s up against are dangerous — indeed lethal.

Like the earlier book, this is not (for the most part), a fast-paced action adventure. Where Oblivion’s Nick kept falling asleep while trying to think through the evidence, Roy twice collapses in the course of his enquiries only to wake up on a ventilator. Unlike Nick, Roy isn’t a professional investigator: he’s much closer to an everyman character, notwithstanding his renown as a sculptor.

He works in scrap metal, particularly radiators from old vehicles, and on a large scale. He also plays ice-hockey, usually very well until he fractures his wrist during a game. While Delia had a PhD in economics from Georgetown, Roy had attended the University of Maine on a sports scholarship. He recognizes that his wife was a lot smarter than he is. Perhaps surprisingly, this doesn’t bother him, though he gets angry when Lenore, a formidable associate of Parish’s, gets the better of him in a physical fight.

It may be that his anger is directed more at his weakened state because of the cancer than at the fact that a woman proved to be the better fighter. In short Roy’s attitudes don’t seem to be particuarly patriarchal, still less misogynist. But, like Abrahams’s protagonists in general, he’s far from perfect. For example, he plays ice-hockey in a league that evidently hasn’t much use for feminist sensibilities:

All the teams had women’s clothing names, a practice long preceding Roy’s arrival. He was on the Thongs. Tonight they were taking on the first-place D-Cups. (p. 22)

The ending is inevitably less upbeat than Oblivion’s. Like Nick, Roy isn’t quite dead yet by the time it arrives, though he probably hasn’t much time left.

But at that point, the demon had had enough. It gave Roy’s heart a special squeeze, to make clear the order of things, once and for all. Next, Roy was on his back, the smell of flowers all around. Was it snowing? (p. 339)

When Roy had last seen Delia, she’d been in the early stages of pregnancy. She hadn’t died how, when or where Parish had told him, but lived long enough to give birth to their daughter, Adele — though not for Adele to have any memory of her mother.

The third book of Abrahams’s that I want to look at — Delusion (2008) — isn’t about someone with a physical impairment. Nell Jarreau thinks she must be suffering from a delusion but she’s mistaken. Twenty years previously, she identified the man who had stabbed her boyfriend to death while trying to rob him. It happened at night, and the killer was masked, but the mask slipped and she got a good, clear look at at the attacker. She was in no doubt. Alvin DuPree is the man who stabbed Johnny Blanton, a promising geologist. Nell gave evidence at DuPree’s trial and the jury convicted him. Nell has never had a moment’s disquiet about the verdict, or her role in bringing it about.

But now, video evidence has been discovered, proving that DuPree was six miles away at the time of the murder. Nell is sure at first that the tape is fake or somehow misleading, but it stands up to scrutiny, even though the man who could authenticate it has himself been murdered (while speaking to Nell and a journalist). How is that possible?

Nell speaks to an expert on eyewitness testimony who tells her that there are various ways in which witnesses may be steered towards positive identifications. It’s widely accepted in the criminal justice systems of many countries, that eyewitness identification may not be reliable. Witnesses — i.e. people — are not always very good at recognizing other people, and often believe that they’re better at it than they actually are. Nell isn’t deluded about the identity of Johnny’s killer, just ordinarily mistaken.

Nell’s husband, Clay Jarreau, is the Police Chief of Belle Ville, a city on the Gulf of Mexico that has been devastated by floods caused by hurricane Bernardine. The evidence exonerating DuPree (now known as “Pirate” because he wears an eyepatch, having lost one eye in an attack by a gang-leader in prison), has turned up as a result of the flooding, in a police locker that belonged to Bobby Rice, Clay’s former detective partner. Bobby was killed while rescuing a child from a flooded building.

The tape was from the security camera at a liquor store owned by Napoleon Ferris, and showed DuPree trying to get into the store, which was closed, at just about the time that Johnny Blanton was attacked. Ferris had sent the tape to the police some years earlier, and it looks as if the exculpatory evidence had been concealed, presumably by Bobby, who had a reputation as an honest and conscientious cop.

Clay, too, is honest and conscientious (except in one important respect, which we’ll come to). He refuses to accept freebies, whether in the form of holidays with his extremely wealthy childhood friend, Duke Bastien, or meals in restaurants. When Norah, the daughter of Nell and Johnny, whom Clay had always treated as his own child, is caught driving while drunk, Clay disapproves of the cop’s decision not to write her up, but says he “won’t count it against him” (p. 72). Later, he tells Nell that she, not Norah, is the one who benefited from that decision.

But it emerges that it was Clay who suppressed the video evidence. He threw it in a dumpster, an action that was seen by Bobby, who recovered the tape and kept it as “insurance”. Both Clay and Bobby show a degree of callous indifference to Pirate’s fate, which sits oddly with their conscientiousness in other respects.

Johnny’s father, who never liked Nell and hasn’t kept in touch with her, suspects that it was Clay who killed Johnny, as a way of getting close to Nell. He communicated this suspicion to Norah, who suddenly turned against her stepfather and started to act out — whence, of course, the drunk driving, among other things. Learning about this, Nell herself begins to suspect Clay’s involvement.

In the end, Clay tells her that he effectively framed DuPree as a favour to Duke Bastien — he did it out of “friendship” (p. 317). But then, a little bit later, he tells her that Bastien hadn’t known exactly what was at stake in Johnny’s murder, or who was responsible — “Duke never knew anything about Johnny Blanton …” (p. 320). This implies that there was no reason for Bastien to ask Clay to cover up the killer’s identity. On first reading, and indeed on second, I found this confusing. It didn’t seem to make sense.

It’s only rereading the novel for this post that I finally understand. Clay’s Achilles heel isn’t friendship for Duke Bastien or anybody else. It’s uxoriousness: the one thing that can induce him to break the rules is his determination to protect Nell. He dumped the tape because the alternative was to confront her with the unpalatable truth that her sworn testimony had been wrong, and had contributed to the imposition of a life sentence on an innocent man. He went along with letting Norah off the hook also to protect Nell. In the end, he deceives her about his motives, again to protect her from having to face the truth.

So, finally, Nell still doesn’t understand why Clay acted as he did. Maybe she’s a little bit deluded after all, just not in the way she thinks.

Pirate, too, may have been a bit deluded. In prison, he discovered the Bible and particularly the story of Job. He believed that studying that story had led him to serenity and peace. In a sense they had, at least temporarily, but they certainly hadn’t made him a good man, or one whose idea of peace excluded violence. I’d like to have written more about Pirate, but it will have to wait. What I have to say about him will fit better into a future discussion of the way Abrahams writes about prisons and prisoners.

That’s a recurring theme in his novels. The book I skipped over, the one between Oblivion and Nerve Damage is End of Story (2006), about a not-too-successful writer named Ivy, who teaches creative writing in a prison and ends up serving time herself. Other books by Abrahams that feature current or former prisoners are Lights Out (1994) and A Perfect Crime (1998). I hope to write about these books, and about what happened to Pirate, before too long.


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