Book Review: Pike, by Benjamin Whitmer

Book Reviews

They call it noir—or possibly neo-noir—which, of course, is the French for black. However, if there’s a word, in any language, for the colour darker than black, well, then that’s the word I’d use to describe Pike. Because Jeez-us Christ, this is dark. And violent. Ohhh, my God, so much violence. Brass-knuckle beatings… shotgun blasts to the belly… slit throats… You name it, Pike’s got it. Fortunately, it has a whole lot more besides, making this one of the most impressive, affecting debut novels I’ve read in a long while.

Douglas Pike—known to all by his surname—is Not A Nice Man. He’s done some Very Bad Things. That’s all in the past, though; he’s older now, living a simple life in a small town in the Appalachian Mountains; smoking his cigarettes and keeping an eye on his sometime business partner, Rory—a brawny young boxer who carries a few demons of his own. The fragile equilibrium of Pike and Rory’s existence is upset when a young hooker turns up to hand over Pike’s twelve-year-old granddaughter, Wendy, following the death of her mother from a heroin overdose. Meanwhile, Derrick Krieger—a corrupt cop from Cincinatti—has been seen hanging around, trying to get a handle on Wendy. Krieger’s presence re-ignites something in Pike and, together with Rory, he sets off to find out what’s up…

At 224 pages, Pike is a swift read. The chapters are a page to two or three pages long: punk-rock-paced and just as decimating for the power of the words they contain. The prose is lean, the narrative unflinching, and the actions it describes both utterly visceral and terrifyingly realistic. ­

The boy said nothing. His eyes were cavernous with pain. Pike grinned at him. The boy slipped his knife out of his pocket before Pike even saw his hand move, the thin blade slivering through the air, crossing his stomach. Those nights were bad. Pike didn’t feel much on any of them. He grabbed the boy’s knife hand, cranked the wrist until he heard it crunch. Then slipped his hand into his brass knuckles and hammered the boy’s oval face until his legs crumbled like sandstone.

 

Whitmer delivers so much story in this, and that he does so in such a slim volume makes it all the more astonishing. Like Slayer’s Reign in Blood—an album on which the majority of the songs last less than three minutes—Pike is a concise, compelling and coruscating work, and one that leaves your skull ringing long after you’ve stopped reading. Stylistically, seemingly simple things such as similes are done with precision and panache, while Whitmer’s evocation of Midwestern America during the Reagan years is a distinctly bleak one.

As brilliant as this book is, though, and as much as I loved it, it’s not one I’d recommend unreservedly. There are moments of beauty and tenderness sprinkled throughout—and those moments are all the more affecting for their scarcity—but it’s the dark stuff that’s the biggest draw here. Readers who’re unfamiliar with Whitmer’s work, but dig that of authors such as Cormac McCarthy, Dennis Lehane (Gone, Baby, Gone) and Craig Davidson (Rust & Bone) should get hold of this immediately.

If you’re not already au fait with noir/hard-boiled crime fiction, Pike might prove a little much. It’ll open your eyes to a world you might not want to believe exists—a world of morally bereft policemen, of sick and deeply damaged men, and of violence so horrific it’ll suck the breath from your lungsand it will do so with a stare so compelling that you’ll be unable to pull away until it’s all over.