Saturday, December 26, 2009
KILLER by Dave Zeltserman
Before I say anything about Dave Zeltserman's new novel I have to note that a) Dave is a friend of mine b) the novel is dedicated to me and c) somebody not unlike me makes a brief appearance in the book.
Leonard March is a mob hit-man who turns state's witness to avoid a lifetime in prison. Despite giving evidence he serves fourteen years and emerges a much older man and not just physically. People familiar with his case are amazed that his former employers didn't manage to have him killed while behind bars. And only now, as he emerges from prison, is the public told of just how terrible a man he is. His photograph is everywhere. He is a pariah. He is even dragged into court on civil charges instituted by the loved ones of some of the people he killed. The press, loving a good story, depicts the victims as good citizens even though they were scum just like March. His prison counselor arranges for March to work quietly as a janitor at nights so he can pay rent on a seedy apartment and buy a few groceries.
Several times while reading Killer I forgot I was reading a novel. The book has the feel of an autobiography. Laid out in alternating chapters of present and past we see March at virtually every stage of his life. His father, his mother, his wife, his children are vividly and vitally portrayed here. His quiet father was a blue collar worker whose sixty and seventy hour weeks led only to a melancholy cynicism about the capitalist system. March's wife's death by cancer while March is in prison is especially haunting. She and the children spurned him after the DA's office revealed that he was a hit man. March in his early twenties was a street punk who, despite his self-denials, savored the deaths he visited on his targets.
All the mob tropes are here to be sure. Sleazy stupid parasites who do with pistols and knives what Wall Street and others do with computers and fancy boardrooms. Zeltserman makes you feel each death and there are plenty of them.
But what you take away from the novel is not the mob melodrama but the rich details of March's life. Zeltserman forces the reader to grant March his intelligence, his occasional eloquence and the remorse he feels but cannot understand. In some respects the man who took all these lives is even more monstrous because he's not a psychopath--as he reminds us several times--but a man who has convinced himself that he's just doing a job. His painful love for the children who have deserted him; the last time he spoke to his dying wife on the phone, her laughing despite her enormous pain, always trying to keep everything "nice;" the young waitress who comes to like this "crazy old man" until she finds out who he is--and is then horrified and angry--grueling, perfectly realized scenes . And then then are the shopping scenes where March buys a new bed, sheets, towels, etc. to make his tiny apartment tolerable--the homeliness of the shopping and the cleaning he has to do is the kind of touch that gives the books its unique truth. You don't find many hit-men scrubbing bathtubs and buying used furniture.
These are just a few of the indelible scenes that make the book so fresh and powerful. Killer is a major novel of crime and likely the book that will win Dave Zeltserman a much wider audience.