Thursday, January 01, 2009

PARIAH by Dave Zeltserman

Serpent's Tail, 2009, ISBN 978-1846686436, £7.99

Its rare that a meta novel ends up being entertaining as well as clever, but Dave Zeltserman’s excellent new novel, Pariah manages that trick very successfully; at once a noir-ish kidnap novel and an attack on the nature of celebrity memoir, plagiarism and the worst excesses of the publishing industry.

The book itself – the manuscript for a book by Boston gangster Kyle Nevin – takes the form of a first person narrative with editorial notes scattered throughout, presumably to our protagonist’s editor. It is unclear at first why we are seeing these notes, but as the story twists and turns (and, oh, does it twist) these editorial intrusions become not only part of Zeltserman’s meta-commentary but also hint that not everything may be as clear as we think it is.

As the book opens, Kyle Nevin finds himself released from prison, looking for revenge on the old boss who put him there. If there’s one thing Kyle can’t abide, it’s a rat. And his boss was the biggest rat of all. So when Kyle does his time – like a man – he comes looking for revenge and satisfaction. His outright anger and near uncontrollable ego lead him into a kidnapping plot that goes horribly wrong and results in an unexpected celebrity and a publishing deal with a New York House. At this point, Zeltserman’s meta-narrative kicks into overdrive and we’re treated to a sometimes subtle, other times not-so, look at the nature of fame, the pitfalls of celebrity tell-alls and the all out pain of plagiarism. Except this is a noir novel, so there’s plenty more sex (or is there?) and violence to come.

As to that twisting plot, there are enough turns here to make some people car sick and yet the novel runs to under 300 pages. Clearly Zeltserman is in control of his action and his characters and this stripped down narrative moves at a blistering pace. Of course, Zelsterman has set himself a difficult task in his choice of narrative voice, walking the line between his own skills as an author and Kyle Nevin’s general naiveté when it comes to writing a novel. But the end result is more than readable, sometimes painfully punchy and authentic enough to allow us to believe that Nevin is the voice behind the story we’re being told.

Pariah’s central conceit is hardly breaking new ground – we’ve seen the same topics lampooned to one degree or another throughout film and literature before – but feels very appropriate to the current times within publishing and the world in general. Some of the targets do seem a little too obvious, with James Frey and OJ Simpson being rather clearly referenced, and the publishing execs with whom Nevin deals are maybe drawn a little too broadly. although, perhaps this, too, is the point; Nevin clearly sees the world in far more broad colours than most of us would – many of the secondary characters are almost dismissed in his eyes, with the feeling that perhaps they live other lives beyond the page or may not have behaved in quite the way Nevin describes. After all, the unreliable nature of literature is perhaps one of the points Zeltserman is trying to drive home here.

Ultimately, Pariah is another gripping and clever tale from the author of the incredible Small Crimes. Its inventive format holds together well, and while some of the satire may be a little obvious, the novel has a mischievously black sense of humour that more than endears itself to the reader. On top of this, Pariah is just a damn fine tale of noir that continues Zelsterman’s fascination with unreliable protagonists that began in Small Crimes. Highly readable and highly recommended along with Zeltserman’s blistering first novel for Serpent’s Tail, Small Crimes.

Russel D McLean for, 1/01/09