Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston

It must be said that The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death ain’t your typical Charlie Huston novel – whatever the fuck that’s supposed to mean. Yeah, it has the blood (tons of the stuff), it has the kick-ass dialogue, the one-of-a-kind stream-lined prose, and it moves along like a motherfucker – but this is no doubt a major departure for Huston. Shit, I’d argue that Mystic Arts isn’t even noir.

Yeah, I fucking just said that. Deal with that shit.

That said, it certainly still kicks some major fucking ass.
Mystic Arts follows Web Goodhue, a smart-ass slacker who seems content to mooch off his best friend Chev and sleep away most of his days. He’s a dick to anybody who cares about him and an even bigger dick to those who don’t, but he’s got a reason for his attitude: a sad, nasty event has rendered him unable to deal with life.

Regardless of all this, fat-ass trauma cleaner Po Sin has decided to take him on board as an apprentice in his dirty business. First gig: cleaning up shit (literally) in a long-dead shut-in’s place. It’s a baptism by blazing fucking fire and he does a good enough job to garner a second day of work, this time cleaning up after the grisly suicide of a wealthy Malibu man with a smoking hot daughter, Soledad. Soledad and Web hit it off and soon the grieving woman asks Web to clean up after a more private, more illegal violent act…

After this encounter with the sexy femme fatale Web gets involved with deadly smuggling hicks, dumb-ass Hollywood wannabes, and rival trauma clean-up businesses – the makings of an awesome wild ride in Huston’s violent funhouse world, right?

You’d think so, but no, dear reader. It’s…different.

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death has a crazy crime plot, but it isn’t about its crazy crime plot, you dig? The book is actually more of a probing, aching character study of Web, a man forced to come to terms with the pain of his past. Yeah, I know – doesn’t sound like good old-fashioned pulpy fun, right?  Sounds like a fucking Cheever story or some shit like that (not to say Cheever wasn’t awesome but still, this is Charlie Fucking Huston we’re talking about here, the modern master of down-and-dirty noir!).

A more accurate way to describe Mystic Arts would be to compare it to the great novels of Sean Doolittle. Like Doolittle, Huston uses the crime plot as an excuse for some action to move the story forward while the real business, the real meat of the book is simply getting to the bottom of a great central character. We get deep inside Web, know his family, know his past, know his pain – know him.

Yeah, there’s hilarious line on every page and the caper shit is rock solid, but it all comes back to Web’s internal journey, his personal growth. The climax is not one of Huston’s amazing, horrifically ape-shit violent action scenes – though there is some good violence, no doubt – but Web starting to get his life in order. And Web is not a tortured killing-machine like Hank Thompson or Joe Pitt – he is a regular guy who will do anything he can not to kill someone.

So basically, don’t go into Mystic Arts expecting a violent thrill-ride with a body count to rival Predator like his previous novels. This beast is a bit more tame, a bit more humane. Shit, it may even win the guy some well-deserved new fans. But still, we’re talking tame for Charlie Fucking Huston, people. It’s like saying The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death is just a vicious crazed junkyard dog instead of a fucking rabid feral dog.

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