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[2010 Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel] — I’m reading all the Edgar nominees in the top two categories (Best Novel, Best First Novel By An American Author), and handicapping the choices before the winners are announced in late April. You can track all my reviews of Edgar nominees here.

Author: Charlie Huston

Ballantine Book, 2009

Filed under: Mystery

After I finished Mystic Arts, I was shocked to discover that it was Huston’s ninth novel, and not his first. It reads like a talented but inexperienced student wrote it; it bears almost every sign and symptom of a juvenile writer’s work. That’s not all bad: while Huston is guilty of simplicity of plot and character (especially emotional simplicity), he also charges the novel with exuberance and passion.

While Mystic Arts isn’t exactly well written, it offers stylish fun, snappy prose, and a flair for the fascinatingly gruesome. It’s a quick-reading, simplistic yarn that primarily wants to entertain you—a goal that’s all too rare these days. And it succeeds, at least until the final act, when the plot finally unravels and leaves the reader in the lurch.

The hero of the novel is Web Goodhue, a slacker in his late twenties who acts about 19. He and his best friend, Chev, have a thin relationship based on being assholes to each other (“asshole” being Huston’s primary character trait for Web).

Web brandishes his assholishness, of course, through his dialogue. Huston, for some reason, decided to use archaic dialogue grammar, with dashes instead of quote marks and no “Web said”-type tags. I don’t understand why writers do this. Standard dialogue grammar is almost invisible to modern readers; changing it means calling attention to it, which is pointless.

Anyway, here’s an example of both the odd grammar and general assholishness, in a conversation between Chev and Web:

Chev put his arm around my shoulders.

—Your first real job. Me and your mom are so proud.

—Fuck you, I’m not going. I’ll call Po Sin later and tell him not to send the guy.

—Yes, you are going. And to celebrate, me and your mom are gonna fuck like bunnies tonight.

So. A bit confusing. Chev pretending to be Web’s father is not quite so funny, especially after the relationship between Chev and Web’s real father is revealed. But Huston’s trying.

Plotwise, Web finally gets a job, working for Po Sin as a crime scene cleaner. That job is the hook of the novel, and it is every bit as disgusting as it promises. For instance, Web’s first day entails cleaning up after a guy who shot himself in the head with his mouth full of water—the results are surprisingly messy.

On the job, Web meets a beautiful girl named Soledad. Later, he cleans up a crime scene for her after hours, and that leads to a whole mess of trouble.

That’s pretty much it. There are a few other threads, but Huston, for the most part, mishandles them. For example, Web repeatedly says that he (cue scary music)… CAN’T RIDE THE BUS! He alludes to a horrific event that severely traumatized him. Over and over, he mentions this terrible bus-related trauma, but when he finally tells us about it, it’s not really so bad. It’s physically gruesome, but not nearly as emotionally scarring as the incident that caused Chev to hate Web’s father, an incident that Web casually mentions and then everybody more or less forgets about.

From that juxtaposition, it’s pretty clear that Huston prizes viscera over emotion. From his descriptions of people, it seems Huston cares more about plot than 3-dimensional characters. (How can you tell Web’s dad is a writer and a drunk? Because when Web goes to his apartment, there’s almost nothing in it but books and liquor bottles.)

And all that’s fine. Two-thirds of the way through the book, I was very much on board. Even through the gay panic jokes, and the booger jokes, and Web talking to his reflection (and his reflection talking back), through all the juvenalia, Huston keeps you invested with his youthful energy, his creativity, and his pretty good dialogue.

Then the climax happens. Or doesn’t, actually, happen. What little tension there could be gets short-circuited so quickly that I assumed it must not be the climax. Surely there must be another climax later on, surely the last four chapters are not just one long denouement, especially when there’s a fifth chapter left for the epilogue, yes?

But no, there is no second climax. The whole plot just, kind of, fizzles. And then loose ends get boringly tied up one by one for four chapters and an epilogue.

And so, I cannot recommend this book. Even if you like Palahniuk-style gross-out noir-horror, Mystic Arts‘s ending collapses so miserably that it cancels out the fun parts in the first half, and the whole thing just feels juvenile.

Similar books: The Amateur American, by J. Saunders Elmore; The Long Fall, by Walter Mosley, Invisible Monsters, by Chuck Palahniuk

Edgar Awards impact: Mystic Arts has style and an original premise, but no idea what to do with either. One of the worst endings I’ve read in a while. I’ll be shocked if it wins.