(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie OCT 30, 2005)
Your sleeping breath brushes my face and blows the ashes from my memory."
Eric Ashworth, creative chemist, with a touch of entrepreneurial genius and a craving for exotic drugs, awakens in an L. A. jail, badly burned, thinking he's in Hell. He has amnesia. Poor guy can only remember the name "Desiree," but cannot recollect who or what the moniker is attached to. His knack for remembering past experiences is so shot, in fact, that the first cop he speaks with has to tell him his own name.
Eric's learned memory is also effected. He is able to recall some chemical formulas, the concept of profit and loss, and still possesses a minor ability to devise better ways to zone people out through the wonders of modern chemistry. However, he had been "unique" before the lab explosion, and the overdose that erased eight seconds worth of his gray matter. Ashworth is "irreplaceable" to those who hired him. He had possessed brilliance - the ability, perhaps, to cure diseases like cancer. Instead he chose to design and produce recreational drugs. Discovered and backed by big bucks from an underworld honcho, Eric and his multitude of skills went to work, producing and distributing drugs. He received, and still does, dire threats from a toady thug and the thug's retarded, violent son as to what they will do to him if he blows the job - literally and figuratively.
There is an image that occasionally flashes across his mind. "A ball of fire, half the size of the house itself rose to the sky. Beautiful... Between the flash and the roar, there wasn't any space at all."
Ashworth's lawyer, whom he doesn't remember meeting, bails him out of the clink and takes him to a low rent dive, Hotel Firebird, Room 621, where his neighbors are pimps, whores, buyers, sellers, and lots of bugs. I gather from the psychedelic narrative that the bugs are both the creepy crawly kind that bite, (occasionally painted in day-glo colors - or viewed through day-glo colored retinas), and also the kind people wear taped to their bodies - "tapeworms." Eric samples a mysterious new drug called "Skin," "Cradle," or "Derma" that synthesizes the sensations of touch, and allows him to time-travel inside his skull for weeks. Due to Skin, or the slow, inevitable return of his memory, or both, he begins to recall his life as a clandestine criminal chemist and his relationship with Desiree, his fortune telling lover. Perhaps he would have been better-off to have remained an amnesiac.
Craig Clevenger can sure write! I have highlighted and book-marked phrases and paragraphs throughout the novel to go back and reread. I may not have understood as much about our protagonist as I would have liked, or empathized with him a whole lot at times, but the author's heavily stylized, wired prose is exceptional - no doubt about it! I will say that the parts of the narrative dealing with Ashworth's childhood, his parents and his fear of violent storms is brilliant and very sensitively handled. Other characters are introduced here: fellow residents of Hotel Firebird, Jack and the Beanstalk, their friend Donna, Detective Ainslinger, Manhattan White and his sicko son, even Desiree - but they all just move on by. I'm in Eric's head and everyone else is a blur.
As for the storyline, the reader is carried along on sheer manic energy, at times moving with the beat and allowing meaning to rush past - like some terrific 60's acid rock song - or trip. (My age is showing!). I am glad Mr. Clevenger kept the page number at 212. I couldn't have run with him much farther. But it was a really good trip.
I am reminded here of Will Christopher Baer's Kiss Me Judas. Although I like the character of ex-cop Phineas Poe more than Eric Ashworth, I am sure if the two ever met, they'd get along very well. I bet their respective creators would also.
Craig Clevenger is extremely talented and I hope his new novel does as well as it should, based on merit.
- Amazon readers rating: from 38 reviews
"The Contortionist's Handbook"
(Reviewed by Jenny Dressel SEP 24, 2003)
I can count my overdoses on one hand.
WARNING: This book is not for the faint of heart. I found myself somewhat disturbed as I was reading this dark tale, thinking of a horrible car accident. You know the kind-- the accident you pass on the highway; you find yourself looking for signs of life, but knowing the accident is bad, that you should just pass and keep your eyes on the road, but still you find yourself rubber-necking with all the other drivers. After saying this, I did enjoy this book.
John Dolan Vincent, Jr. is the extremely brilliant, although misunderstood, protagonist in the novel. He was born with six fingers on his left hand, and suffers from intensely painful migraines, which doctors have looked into and called unfounded. The migraines, which he calls godsplitters, have established Vincents current course of action. As the doctors cant find a root cause, this 26-year-old self-medicates his headaches by using illegally prescribed painkillers. This leads to an overdose, which lands him in a hospital psychiatric ward. After the overdose, which, by law, must be evaluated, Vincent finds himself being interviewed by hospital psychiatric staff. This is where we find him in the beginning of the book.
Vincent has arrived at the Queen of Angels Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital as an overdose victim with the name of Daniel Fletcher. From past experience, he is aware of the evaluation of his mental condition that will take place. In addition, he is knows the questions that will be asked, and the answers that will suffice him to be mentally competent. Vincent, aka Fletcher, has one objective- Convince this guy Im not a head case. Whether or not Im locked up is decided by a guy who couldnt pass the same evaluation under the same circumstances in a hundred lifetimes. Hes tagged me with at least one unfounded headache and at least one overdose, so Ive got to think quickly.
As I said before, Vincent is brilliant, but due to his circumstances, we find that Vincent has spent time in special education classes, juvenile hall, prison, and working for the mob. Vincent explains himself thus Sometimes I can be so smart, and sometimes I can be so stupid. I found Vincent, as an adult, to be arrogant and very bitter. Clevenger has given us a glimpse into Vincents past, through flashbacks, which explains why Vincent has an attitude. Clevengers technique -- using flashbacks -- can, at times, become confusing, but I got the hang of it. The protagonist becomes a more sympathetic character after being told of his past experiences.
John Dolan Vincent has a gift for copying things in an EXACT replica in which he finds them. I started mimicking at age seven, the year I repeated kindergarten I can copy anything now. Straight lines- hone the length to the centimeter- and perfect circles. Give me an angle degree and I can do it. Any signature, even the worst doctors scrawl. This talent has allowed him to re-create himself and become someone different every time he overdoses. He creates new identities by forging birth certificates, social security cards, and credit histories. He does this methodically and patiently, all in order to beat the race before the next godsplitter.
I found this to be a tale of survival. We have a young man who suffers from horrible migraines, and who can find no relief from the medical community. Therefore, he hones his own particular talents to make his life more bearable. While it may not be how some, or even most, people would react to a problem, I found him quite believable. He did the best he could with what he had.
If you are strong enough to get through the dark experiences throughout this novel, you are rewarded with a light at the end of the tunnel. I closed this book with the hope that John Dolan Vincent, Jr. could finally live as himself.
- Amazon readers rating: from 68 reviews
(back to top)
Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
(back to top)
- The official Web site for Craig Clevenger
- Curled Up interview with Craig Clevenger
- SFGate review of Dermaphoria
(back to top)