Book Review: Disintegration, by Richard Thomas

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Over the last couple of years, I’ve become rather used to seeing Richard Thomas’s name appear in my news feed. It seems hardly a week goes by without one of his stories finding a home—not surprising, really, given that he’s one of the most prolific and hard-hitting writers out there. Operating primarily within the neo-noir genre, Thomas has put out, to date, over a hundred pieces of fiction, including a novel, Transubstantiate, and two short story collections, Herniated Roots and Staring Into The Abyss. He’s also an extremely skilled editor, a gifted and generous mentor, and as highly respected for the advice he shares in his columns about writing as he is for his own fiction.

But while the appearance of his name on social media feeds may carry with it an air of predictability, reading his work most certainly does not. “Dark”; “transgressive”; “twisted”—these are just some of the words used to describe Thomas’s writing. In fact, the only predictable thing about reading one of Richard Thomas’s stories is that you’ll be left wondering about what sort of mind spawned such a diabolical creation… and where can I read some more?

Disintegration is no exception. At the beginning of the book, we find a broken man, living alone, in a shit-hole apartment in the Bucktown area of Chicago, and taking jobs from a man named Vlad, who delivers his orders in an envelope shoved under the door of that same shit-hole. The details of how the man ended up in this state are sparse. Snippets of an answer machine message, scattered sporadically throughout the narrative, reveal the once beating heart of the life he held dear, but really, there’s very little time for him—or anyone—to dwell on the past:

Hallucinations, nightmares, and all manner of slips with reality—my life is a smorgasbord of dysfunction, lies and false memories. What to do? Back to fucking work, I guess. And Vlad made that easy…”

The “work”, to which the narrator refers, consists, essentially, of doing bad very things to people who’ve done very bad things. (I know, right—what’s not to like?) Matters are made more complicated, however, by the fact that the man lives in an almost permanent state of booze- and pill-fuelled detachment, punctuated by some rather irksome doubts about the nature of his work, and who he can trust. He’s also got a cat named Luscious to look after, and a girlfriend named Holly… the latter of whom may or may not be double-crossing him…

Disintegration is dazzling, compulsive reading: a gritty, fast-paced crime thriller that’ll have you turning the pages at breakneck speed, even as you try to determine the verisimilitude of what’s being described on those pages. The bleakness and violence of its protagonist’s existence is underpinned by some of the pithiest prose and hilariously grim one-liners you’re likely to revel in all year, and while one might justifiably draw comparisons to a host of other writers for the way this piece is penned, there’s something uniquely arresting about the manner in which Thomas’s narrator delivers his words:

In the span of one hundred and forty seconds I have transformed once again. I spill out of the seat, and to the back of the white beast, the crisp night air filling my lungs… There is plenty of life out here. Hands shoved into my coat pockets, the laughter of a circus clown echoing in the alleyways between tiny houses, the brick apartment buildings, the long warehouses that extend away from me. And already I can feel my hands on his neck.”

At times, it felt like George Stark—the murderous, back-from-the-dead alter-ego of the fictitious author in Stephen King’s novel, The Dark Half—had stumbled unwittingly into the K-hole, after a night out with one of Bret Easton Ellis’s more degenerate characters; at others, it was far more disturbing. And that’s before we’re introduced to a dominatrix named Isadora… from which point on things start to get really messy.

But while the protagonist in Disintegration may be on his way down, its creator is most definitely not. There is a singularity of purpose to Thomas’s writing that lends weight to the argument that this is his strongest work yet, as he leads a complex, morally ambiguous character through a series of increasingly sordid, bizarre and brutal encounters with complete control, counterpoising them with moments of genuine tenderness and compassion. In the end it’s this that gives Disintegration its edge… and why I’ll be looking out for Richard Thomas’ name again in the coming months, when the second book of this series is released.

Matt Pucci

Disintegration was provided by Alibi from the Random House Publishing Group and Netgalley.