Monday, January 20, 2014

The Bitch by Les Edgerton

I'm a huge admirer of Les Edgerton's novel THE RAPIST, so when I started his novel THE BITCH, I had high expectations.  Not that I was expecting to read a book remotely like THE RAPIST, a masterpiece of  the darkest type of existential crime fiction, but I had little doubt that I'd be in the hands of a crime fiction practitioner par excellence.  How pleasant it is when your expectations are met, when a writer you've set the highest standard for meets that standard and exceeds it.

THE BITCH is about Jake Bishop, an ex-con in Indiana who has a lovely young wife, a baby on the way, and a teenaged brother he's caring for.  Jake was once a burglar, but since his last stint in jail, he has done his best to stay straight. And he's succeeded.  He has a trade - he's a hairstylist in a salon - and he has ambition: he and his wife are saving money to start their own salon.  He used to drink too much but hasn't fallen off the wagon in a long time.  Things seem pretty good. Of course, in a book like this, in noir land, if things seem okay, you know they won't be okay for long.  Everything will turn sour quickly. And for Jake life begins to rot the day his old cellmate turns up asking him for a favor.  The cellmate's name is Walker Joy, and from the moment Bishop makes the mistake of letting Joy back into his life, Bishop experiences precious little of that particular word. 

It's no secret that Les Edgerton did time himself, years ago.  And in all Jake's thoughts and descriptions about jail there is an authenticity that I'm sure in part derives from Edgerton's experience.  But living through something and writing about it are two entirely different things, and what makes THE BITCH such a great read is Edgerton's flat-out skill.  Though he may be drawing upon past experience for his raw material, it's the imagination he applies to that material and the substantial craft he wields that make this book work.  THE BITCH is a novel that unfolds in a way both entirely plausible and heavily plotted, no small feat.  There are twists and turns galore, yet nothing that happens seems forced or arbitrary.  Indeed, while reading the novel, I felt as if I was reading a textbook example of a particular type of noir story.  It's the crime story where one wrong decision by the main character, just one, is enough to send his entire life sliding downhill.  It doesn't matter if the decision is based on an honorable intention.  Bishop knows helping Walker is not the wisest decision, but he feels he owes the man because Walker helped him a lot in prison. Walker even saved his life in prison.  Naturally, Walker brings up this debt, and that's where he hooks Bishop.  Never mind that the debt is related to prison garbage that has nothing to do with the outside world. Bishop feels he must honor it.  His sense of having a cellmate code, his loyalty to the past - these are his weaknesses.  He agrees to help Walker and from that instant, the die is cast.  THE BITCH unfolds like a nightmare after that; a mixture of bad judgment, small lies, mental errors, and plain old bad luck enfold Bishop in a web of deceit and criminal acts that threaten to destroy everything he's built since he last got released from prison.  It's almost as if, his statements to the contrary, he can't wait to go back to jail.

And who exactly is the Bitch?  What is the Bitch? It's not a woman, I can tell you that, because no woman dreamt up by a man, even a women-fearing man, could be as terrifying as this sucker.  The Bitch pertains to something relevant for a repeat offender like Jake, and it hangs over his every move like the oppressive hand of Fate.  Does he control anything?  The thing in life he least wants to do is return to prison, and nearly everything he does as his situation worsens he does to avoid returning to prison, but the image of the Bitch plagues his thoughts night and day.  He struggles against the magnetic pull of the Bitch, and though we don't want to get optimistic reading a work of noir like this, we hope against hope that he can resolve his situation well. For the duration of the book, I was rooting for Jake to pull off the seemingly impossible, and that I cared so much for him is a testament to Edgerton's ability to make you understand Jake. You understand everything that makes him tick, and despite his actions, you sympathize with him. You're willing to forgive him almost anything to see him escape the vise he's in.

If I were teaching a course on literary noir, THE BITCH is a book I'd choose for class study.  It's perfectly constructed and has nary a wasted word.  It's a stark tale of a man fighting as hard as he can against himself, the world, Nature, Fate; and it's a book that, once started, you don't want to put down.  It's the kind of book an old Hollywood master like Fritz Lang would have made a great film from, and I can only hope someone in today's film biz still reads novels and finds this one.  Finds it, and then decides to adapt it.  It would make a wonderful movie.  And by the way, while I'm at it, let me throw out a word of thanks to New Pulp Press for re-issuing this. THE BITCH deserves a wide audience.