Monday, July 27, 2009

Something unmistakably present

A charming novel about a neurotic suburban protagonist who will steal your heart

As an occasional reader of thrillers, I've encountered my fair share of savvy spies tip-toeing their way through enemy headquarters, pragmatic cops who bend the rules for the sake of justice, or charming crooks planning a risky scheme to game The System. The very recognizability of such scenarios is precisely what makes
them appealing, even as I crave a sense of novelty. Part of the pleasure of Matthew Dicks's new novel Something Missing, which I read in about 24 hours while on my summer vacation (having picked it up on the strength of its arresting cover), is the kind of meta-narrative humor that hovers over the book. This is a story with bona fide suspense in the form of close calls, races against the clock, and dreaded scenarios that are conveniently confronted somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters
of the way through. What makes it all so amusing, though, is that the narrative trigger for such suspense begins with an electric toothbrush dropped into a toilet bowl, and gets sustained by subsequent events like the premature arrival of a birthday present on the day of a surprise party.

The protagonist of this deftly paced novel is Martin Railsback, burglar extraordinaire -- or, perhaps more accurately, burglar ordinaire. This is a guy whose typical haul involves surplus salad dressing, postage stamps, and powdered lemonade, leavened by more profitable items like jewelry or Waterford crystal after he's ascertained, through rigorous record-keeping, that it will never be missed. Martin, who calls his victims "clients," exhibits clear symptoms, never named as such, of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. One reason it might not be is that his OCD is not quite obviously a handicap: Martin's exceptional scrupulousness in maintaining highly elaborate rituals in casing, entering, and disposing of property makes him a remarkably efficient and painless criminal. Thanks to the chatty style he cooks up for his empty-nester female online avatar, he's so successful in selling his wares on e-bay that he starts a secondary business brokering other people's stuff. (He keeps working as a barista at Starbucks in suburban Hartford, though, because he needs the health insurance.)

Martin's highly ordered life is humming along until one day the unpredictable happens: he knocks that toothbrush into the toilet. Phobic at the thought of retrieving it even with latex gloves, never mind contemplating his "client" using it, Martin decides he must replace the toothbrush, breaking his self-imposed rule of never re-entering a house the same day, regardless of how harmless it might be. Naturally, this decision precipitates a string of unforseen consequences, climaxing in dual confrontations between Martin and his conscience and Martin and a young woman who unexpectedly enters his life and forces him to consider the cost of some plausibly cherished personal traits.

There's a sunniness about
Something Missing that is both surprising and pleasing. Certainly, there are dark currents running through the book; Martin's broken family casts durable shadows on his psyche, and is in fact a proximate cause for his life of crime. There's also a sketchily drawn sex offender with evil plans. But the paradoxical effect of this career burglar's craft is to impress upon us a sense of decency that governs everyday life, as well as a sense of drama if we're willing to look for it. Matthew Dicks is smart enough (or maybe just healthy enough) not stitch the ending of his novel too tightly together. But there's a generous spirit in the book that you experience as hope.

In relatively long "about the author" page typical of the young first-time novelist savoring a dream come true, Dicks is described (surely by himself) as having the "distinction of having died twice by the age of eighteen before being revived by paramedics on both occasions." It's hard not to speculate that such experiences have enhanced his sense of wonder and attentiveness to the beauty that inheres even in a flawed existence. Whether or not that's true, the reader of this book has reason to be grateful for the gifts Dicks received in his survival and the one he confers in a genuinely life-affirming story.

One other note: Something Missing departs from the standard model of trade fiction in that it's a paperback original, published by Broadway Books. The practice of bypassing a first edition in hardcover has been around a while, whether in the case of genre fiction like mysteries, or more literary books like those of the now-famous Vintage Contemporaries which launched the career of Jay McInerney 25 years ago with Bright Lights Big City. While the idea never quite caught on -- reviewers, for example, have been reluctant to take on such books -- the practice seems to be reviving, and may gain traction amid the tumult of the industry generally. In any case, Something Missing is listed at $14 -- a relatively cheap thrill these days.