BY CHARLES RAMMELKAMP
2015, G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Filed Under: Literary
At the end of the Prologue to Mark Wisniewski’s Watch Me Go, a noir meditation on love, families, guilt and forgiveness (not to mention an eerily relevant contemplation of race in contemporary America), Douglas Sharp – “Deesh” – one of the two narrators of the alternating chapters that follow, offers to affirm his innocence, “Ms. Price, you’re asking me to tell you a very long story.” Jan Price, the other narrator, replies, “Not necessarily, Deesh. I’m asking you to tell me the truth.” What follows in over sixty chapters, in a breathless, headlong prose style that is the very essence of the urge to spill, is a complicated tale that nevertheless seems intent on distilling certain bedrock truths – about friendship, betrayal, ambition, the tug of the heart.
Deesh is an African-American living below the poverty line in the Bronx. He is in Riker’s prison for the murder of a policeman but also the chief suspect in two other murders. Like Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, and millions of others like them, he is also guilty of being black in the eyes of racist white America.
Deesh is consulting with his court-assigned defense attorney, Lawrence Gerelli, who basically regards him as guilty, when he receives an unexpected visitor, Jan Price, an attractive young white woman who has come to forgive him for one of those murders, to testify in Deesh’s behalf, bur she wants some straight answers, in case Deesh has other blood on his hands.
What follows is each’s story, how they have arrived at their present circumstances. Deesh’s story begins with a disposal job he is working on with two buddies, Bark and James, his former teammates on a state championship high school basketball team. Bark owns a truck, and the three make money hauling away junk. While they are all in it together, as the owner of the truck Bark is clearly the point man, the leader, the “boss.”
It’s a suspicious job upstate from the city, to dispose of a drum whose contents are a mystery. None of the three has a very good feeling about this, suspect foul play. But the sketchy black woman who has summoned them has offered a thousand dollars in cash, which is impossible for the three to resist in their current circumstances. They wind up dumping the drum by the side of a desolate road in a sparsely populated area further upstate, but then, as the reality of their situation becomes clear – didn’t they leave fingerprints, etc. – they decide to flee.
James bails on Deesh and Bark, and, against the better judgment of both James and Deesh, Bark drives to his Bronx apartment to get his gun. Indeed, all three had decided to run to Mississippi together, but Bark’s decision to get the gun is what causes James to drop out. When Bark shoots and kills a belligerent Ferguson-style cop who is leaning on them inordinately hard for being double-parked on a Bronx street, the trouble really begins….
Jan Price has come to Riker’s by way of horseracing country upstate. She and her mother are racetrack denizens who’ve returned to the Finger Lakes region from years of exile in Arkansas to try to fit in again. Jan’s father, who died before she was born – a suicide, it turns out – had been a jockey, and this is likewise Jan’s secret ambition.
Jan and her mother Cindy have come back to New York at the invitation of the Corcorans – Tom, Colleen and their son Tug. Tom Corcoran was the last person to see Jan’s father alive. Tom is a former jock himself, and Tug wants to run a horse farm. They’re all steeped in the culture.
Jan’s story is full of the life of horses, racetrack and gambling, and when it turns out that a certain drum on the Corcoran property was used by a shadowy organized crime syndicate to “send a message” about people who can’t pay their gambling debts, the reader sees where Deesh’s and Jan’s stories are going to collide.
Wisniewski demonstrates a solid knowledge of the lore and the ethos and the business of racetracks, their milieu and environs. Jan’s story is vivid and convincing in its detail. The compulsive gambling. The contempt for the “Grandstanders.” The colorful weird characters such as The Nickster, The Show Stopper, the half-witted Form Monger with his stump of an arm.
Deesh’s story is more meandering and “imagined” as we “watch him go” to rural Pennsylvania to escape the murder rap. There he encounters Gabe Cutler, an eccentric reclusive white man, in many ways the best, most complex character in the story. Gabe, who is sympathetic to people of color in American society, nevertheless unwittingly persuades Deesh to go back and face the music, though it doesn’t actually happen that way.
For Deesh is in love with Madalynn, the mother of his seventeen-year old son Jasir. The full implications of this come on Deesh full force as he spends time with Gabe, learning how to fish, to theoretically “survive on his own.” The reader has to be skeptical whether Deesh’s resolution to be a better, more attentive man to Madalynn and Jasir after nearly two decades of nearly complete neglect really amounts to much, but he did decide to go back to turn himself in, after all, though again, since he’s apprehended by the law before he actually does that, we still can’t measure his behavior against much.
Still, this love theme is potent and, similarly, Jan is in love with Tug Corcoran, and her love for Tug – and Tug’s for her – motivates her behavior to some degree as well, and again to something more noble.
Of the two narrative threads, Deesh’s is the more riveting as the story unfolds, while Jan’s becomes the more compelling as the novel climaxes and reaches a resolution. Deesh’s story is related in a present tense voice, while Jan’s in the past. This gives Deesh’s more immediacy, more urgency, while Jan’s seems to have greater “meaning” in a moral sense.
How the murder charges are – or are not – resolved is the intriguing twist here, and I am not about to spoil it for the reader. My one criticism is that in Jan’s sections we are sometimes told what Tug and Tom think and feel, as if this is an omniscient narrative and not Jan’s story being told to Deesh. At other times, we do hear Jan speak of Tug’s feelings in words like “probably” and “might have,” but indeed we are inside Tug’s head and heart in a way that is just not possible in a narrative sense, in some chapters., when Jan does not even seem to be present
But why quibble – Watch Me Go is an absorbing tale of gritty crimes and the fluid, subjective nature of “guilt” and “innocence,” and Wisniewski’s style is, as Salman Rushdie notes in his endorsement, “irresistible.” Watch him go!