[This novel is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Millard Kaufman

2010, McSweeney’s

Filed under: Literary, Mystery, Thriller

Misadventure is a terrific book. Its author, the late Millard Kaufman, was McSweeney’s’s famous “boy novelist,” renowned for publishing his first novel, Bowl of Cherries, at 90.

While this is only his second novel, Kaufman’s been writing his whole life. He worked in 1950s Hollywood as a screenwriter, and it shows. Misadventure hovers somewhere between mystery and thriller—let’s call it “suspense”—and its tone and feel are reminiscent of Tinseltown’s Golden Age.

It’s a book that isn’t shy about having an intricate, twisting plot, but it still gets its drive from vivid characters and the way it dives headfirst into conflicts, one after another.

Jack Hopkins, a grousy young realtor, headlines the show, but he gets upstaged more than once, by a sleepy boss and his boorish son, by a rival’s eccentric (and possibly homicidal) ex-wife—virtually every character is a character, in the ’50s sense of the word. I won’t list more so as not to spoil their entrances.

As for the plot, I’ll tell you only as far as it took to get me hooked (don’t read the flap copy, it’ll spoil half the book). Jack gets sent out to see about selling a house for a Mrs. Norton, who’s secretly about to divorce her husband. Jack’s unhappy with his wife, and he’s immediately smitten by Mrs. Norton; he ends the meeting by asking her out. She says no. He responds:

What the hell, I thought. “We don’t have to have dinner,” I said. “But I want to sleep with you.”

They start an affair, immediately, in the house she wants to sell. Jack soon finds out that she’s not “Mrs. Norton,” she’s Mrs. Hunt, the wife of his biggest real estate rival. Then he finds out her husband beats her viciously, and she asks Jack to kill him. But then he meets Mr. Hunt:

One minute with Tod Hunt told me his wife was a mythmaker.

That’s just some of what happens in the first thirty pages. Throughout this rat-a-tat plot, the real dazzle comes from the writing itself, especially Jack’s rubbery, hardboiled voice, which manages to exude philosophy and spirit even as it always, always entertains.

Here’s an example of what should be a straightforward passage, turned captivating in Kaufman’s hands (and Jack’s voice). Gayle, Jack’s long-suffering wife, is reading a book in a tree. He’s feeling fond of her, and decides to climb:

I worked my way through the branches. They looked cool and inviting, the limbs of veined silver, the bark of velvet, the leaves as fragile and soft as fine linen.

A delusion and a snare. The trunk was full of sharp little warty protuberances which cut my hands. The boughs were pustulated with oozing sap. The foliage was coated with viscid dust. Why is it that trees, venerated by poets and peasants alike, are so fucking filthy? I made it, finally, to the side of my darling, to be greeted by an unruffled silence.

Everything in Misadventure happens like this, with verve and cynicism and wit, and a barging, entitled protagonist who’s not afraid to get mad at the illusions of the world, or the people that get in his way.

This book does suffer from a lackluster ending, and most of its depth comes from Jack’s little pronouncements about the world. But still, to the very end, it’s great fun watching Jack gallumph about, making his snap decisions about people (and often being wrong), watching him square off against everybody.

Jack (or maybe Kaufman) is kind of a drama dowsing rod: he goes straight for it, always and without dawdle. As it turns out, that makes for a pretty good novel.

So, once again, Misadventure is good. Read it.

Similar books: For another mystery that’s more about the prose, try Robert Coover’s Noir.

For another thoughtful, stylish book about a realtor—these two more thoughtful than suspenseful—read The Sportswriter or Independence Day, by Richard Ford (only in the second one is he a realtor, in the first one, not surprisingly, he’s a sportswriter).

This also reminded me of Light House, by William Monahan, which is out of print but worth the trouble.