So Eddie Whitt was just this guy, you know. An average schlub with the wife and kid and cozy little house in the suburbs, growing a tad chubby and living a life of that calm happiness that is completely overlooked by everyone who has it. Then a madman, some piece of sh*t came and smothered the life out of his little baby girl. That was years ago and even though Killjoy did not stop with Whitt, the police have largely given up on catching him. Hell, not only did the guy stop killing, but he has started abducting children from abusive parents and giving them to the parents of the kids he killed. That won’t stop Whitt, though. He is determined to find and kill the man he helped name, the man who killed his joy, and he won’t let anything stop him. Even his own doubts.
The basic synopsis makes this sound like it is a bout as rote of a novel as you can get. Hell, replace the main character with a woman and you’d have all of the Lifetime movies that weren’t about Valerie Bertinelli getting her ass beat. But if you honestly believe that to be all there is to this work, then you’ve never read anything by Piccirilli before. If you have, then you know there will be some seriously crazy sh*t afoot.
How about a crazed cult, obsessed with body fluids and castration, that may or may not be linked to Killjoy? The eerily prophetic nature of Killjoy’s nonsensical letters to Whitt? Or Whitt’s nighttime calls from a version of himself that is living the life he could be living if only his daughter had been left alone inside of his daughter’s old doll house. We sure as hell ain’t on Oxygen, Toto.
Lit dorks like myself will find something very interesting in the way that Pic plays around with our sense of morality here as well. Initially, we are given what seems to be a pretty well worn construct ripped right from Moby Dick, a tale of obsession where our hero seems to be behaving more and more like an asshole and the villain begins to look like the better man. Our sense of moral outrage at K.J.’s initial actions get confused and warped. But we’ve been down that road before. What makes it interesting is what is then done to the conceit that morality is always ambiguous and that evil is a fluid concept.
Don’t let that fool you though, this is no stuffed-shirt dryly pontificating on the nature of existence. This is an artist whose words dance on the page in front of you. This is Tom during his transition period, before the stark grittiness of The Cold Spot and still holding on to some of the dark poetry of his earlier work. just check out the following: “The glass in the window frame moaned as if from a breeze, but there wasn’t one. Whitt had grabbed hold of the sill, squeezed it so hard now that the molding was shifting inside the wall. His fingernails dug into the paint, maybe twenty coats thick over the ninety years the building had been around. Sinking back through the decades, his nails piercing deeper into time, fingertips beginning to bleed and leak into the foundation. Someday, these small blood sacrifices were going to come back and give him power when he needed it most.” If you don’t have goosebumps now, then I just don’t know what to say to you.
But the real draw here is the raw, powerful nature of the emotions at play and how well Pic uses them to make us understand the main character and his situation. There is a moment early on where Whitt looks at a picnic basket in his trunk and is reminded that he once had such an ordinary, utterly mundane life that isn’t heart-breaking so much as heart-rending. Tom understands how much we need that connection to the character to make sure that we can never let slide what is at stake for him.
The Dead Letters is the work of a master craftsman in one of his finest moments and you can find used copies for cheap as hell by now, so you have no excuse.
Available at Bantam Books