Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sacred Monster Intrigues, Irritates

When an author tries something new, fans often react with equal parts anticipation and fear. This is doubly true when said author has a track list as long as your arm. Take Donald Westlake, who managed to pen over a hundred novels in his lifetime. Readers knew to expect slapstick crime stories when they opened a Westlake book or harder-than-cement-shoes hardboiled when he went under the pseudonym Richard Stark. So what must have gone through their heads when Sacred Monster showed up in the late eighties? It wasn’t a light-hearted caper or a tough P.I. tale. It was something altogether different, namely a Hollywood satire.

Oscar-winning actor Jack Pine doesn’t know why he agreed to do an interview on this of all mornings. He’s coming down off a bender so enormous he can’t even remember the past twenty-four hours, and his hangover is pounding him so hard it feels as though a thousand elephants are tap dancing on his cerebellum. Plus, this interviewer -- whatshisname and whereshefrom, oh, never mind, it hurts to think -- wants to know everything, from all about his best friend (childhood chum Buddy Pal) to the first girl he slept with (high-school vixen Wendy), from the ins and outs of his entire career (down and up and down again) to the details of his three spectacularly failed marriages (to Marcia, Lorraine and Dori). And Jack’s having a hard time dredging memory’s depths, because every now and again those chemicals in his bloodstream click just so and he drops over unconscious. But as the interview goes on, one thing becomes clear. Jack Pine is hiding a dark secret from everyone -- including himself.

As you might have guessed, Sacred Monster doesn’t stray too far from Westlake’s preferred genre, even though you have to get pretty far in before a mystery starts to emerge. A big clue pops up in the first chapter, then the book loses itself in poking fun at the idiocies of Hollywood excess. Good sport, that, and the slow insinuation of an old horror at around the midpoint intrigues. But the ending squashes the entire enterprise flatter than a lazy frog on a railroad track. Think of one of those implausible and irritating summer-movie twists, and you won’t be far off. Not to say the novel’s a terrible read. With his winning style and stupendous sense of humor, Westlake would’ve had a hard time writing one of those. On the scale of quality, Sacred Monster falls somewhere in the middle, neither reaching for the heavens nor plunging into the abyss.

(Picture: CC 2006 by
DonnaGrayson )

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