Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Lookout, Eno, Bull City), and a pair of well-regarded literary magazines out of UNCW, it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature publishing. More so, it shows the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title and an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
In the Absence of Good Men
Outlaws Publishing, 2019, pgs. 180
Local filmmaker, playwright, and novelist extraordinaire (and encore film reviewer) Anghus Houvouras has released a new novel, “In The Absence Of Good Men.” Part of what I enjoy so much about Anghus’ work is he can make books with a premise I normally would not find appealing yet are absolutely irresistible. “The Fence Mender,” one of his previous novels, is a great example. Generally speaking, post-apocalyptic showdowns are not really my thing, but “The Fence Mender” had me from page one.
Anghus has done it again with “In The Absence Of Good Men.” The novel is set in an Old West-style world. The protagonist, Edward Merchant, is a contract killer. It is actually more of a noir-like thriller than anything. If Merchant reminds me of anyone, it is Phillip Marlowe from the Raymond Chandler books. Women are very disposable, interchangeable and unimportant in Merchant’s world. Indeed, only two women speak in the book. One is a Miss Havisham-like character and is dispatched like a dog: put out of her misery.
The other has a name that continues to change; sometimes she is Renee, sometimes she is Rachel, and other times she is Penelope (the last is an homage to the famed Penelope who waited for Ulysses). But all of them speak to the idea that a woman is an object, not a person, and is not worthy of the same space in Merchant’s brain as even the least interesting of his professional contacts. At least we know where he stands.
Like many people of his ilk, Merchant has a very specific code of ethics he will not violate. It might not be the code most would chose to live by, but it is Merchant’s. As a result he winds up going to prison for a crime he did not (entirely) commit—and he doesn’t turn in any of his associates. While in prison he receives the proverbial offer he cannot refuse—two, actually. The first involves taking down the hero of the prison’s general population.
We watch him destroy another person for the sheer joy of it—something he has claimed he did not do. Still, Merchant positively revels in it. His deteriorating mindset—from seeing killing as his craft, to viewing it as something that gives him more joy than anything in the world—makes for irresistible reading. Anghus moves the plot inexorably to a climax so deftly, I seriously could not put down the book—as in, “dinner is just going to have to wait” could not put it down.
Coincidentally, I also wrote a book about a contract killer a few years ago, and our two characters could not be more different. Perhaps that is why I find Anghus’ novel so fascinating. My contract killer expected to be an angel of retribution and instead became a tool of petty squabbles. She cared constantly and was eaten alive by the moral dilemma.
Anghus’ killer doesn’t want to know the backstory, doesn’t want to get involved, and doesn’t care. It is all about perfecting a skill and deploying it to the best of his ability. Money is Merchant’s major motivator. He is completely immersed in the seedy underbelly of the world and has no need to pretend to aspire to a different life … most of the time. Well, some of the time, really.
Anghus is most comfortable writing for screen and it is the secret to his prose. He writes battle and fight scenes that can only be described as “cinematic.” Also, he understands pacing. There is not a slow moment in the book. Reflective, yes. Slow, no. It is like someone fired a starting pistol, and right from the start, we are on a steady course—just a bit faster than we usually move. And it’s nonstop.
Anghus is also adept at foreshadowing and scene construction. So when we do get to the key detail—a handkerchief—we already know what is inside it (as does Merchant), before he unfolds it. It is actually a frustrating yet satisfying payoff for that one page.
But Anghus is not going to let his us feel satisfied for long. He has another trick up his sleeve. And another. And another. He loves the power an unreliable narrator provides him: the ability to create plot twists and surprise. He utilizes that power right up to the final sentence.