A man wakes up in an unfamiliar motel room. He is afraid, in pain, bleeding. He remembers his night terrors as a child and a teenage sense of ‘the night barrelling through space.’ He does not know how long he has been there. A woman comes in and mutters at him. Lee knows ‘everything was ruined.’ The woman persuades Wild, a doctor who has been struck off, to take charge of Lee. They set out for Wild’s old mentor, so that he may remove the bullet. They take Lee’s suitcase containing a stolen $8,000. Elsewhere, Josef, an ageing low life, has to get that money back or, his (criminal) boss tells him, he is finished, even though they both acknowledge that it is not very much money. It is the principle of the thing. So Josef pursues Lee and the doctor. The rest of the story is their journey and the pursuit.
The publishers describe this as ‘a modern noir thriller’. I expected a neat plot, some fast action, a cool eye for the weaknesses of bad guys. Maybe also a sort of Philip Marlow Code, fastidiousness rather morality, as a man who is not himself mean walks the mean streets, alert, aware and vulnerable. This is not that sort of noir.
Here we’re running with the bad guys from the start. Not that they see themselves as bad guys, just the victims of accident and bad choices. ‘Like all people in free fall, Wild had been the last person to realise.’ They are not dislikeable – there is a fascinating absence of malice in all of them and they don’t pity themselves or blame other people much either. (A touch unrealistic, I thought that, to be honest.) Lee and Wild lurch from crisis to crisis with blank acceptance. These are people you do not ask why they do what they do – you ask them (or they ask themselves) how they got there. Memory and flashback tell that story and which is where the really shocking stuff is to be found.
The chapters are told from the point of view of each main character in turn. Often they move at the pace of reverie, minutely observed: Lee is losing blood throughout the real time of the story; the doctor, Wade, gets high; it shows. And the unimaginably awful slips through almost unnoticed, along with the smell of apples and the sound of laughter. ‘People will always be as cruel as they are allowed to be,’ says a prison inmate, in passing. And it is only later that you realise the truth of it.
Do I recommend this book? Um. If you’re a fan of alienation lit, it is probably outstanding. As for me, in spite of its qualities and some enviable writing in places, I just didn’t care about any of the people. Oh, a horse did rouse my sympathy, briefly. My rewards for reading this book did not include emotional engagement or justice served. But it has one great virtue. A gambling boss says at one point, ‘The way people like us survive is that nobody really believes we exist.’ Well, after reading this book, I do.
Jenny's Rating: 4/5
Many thanks to Jenny for taking the time to review this book and to Quercus for sending a copy, The Low Road is out now.