While I admire the ability of some readers to plan their reading with a list (or some other method), I’ve never been able to do that. Or perhaps it’s that I just can’t be bothered. It’s not that I lack the discipline, but the conclusion of one sort of book dictates my next book. So, for example, if I’ve read a dark crime novel, chances are that I will next pick up something lighter in response. And then there are times I want to return to one of my favourite authors. On other occasions, my reading direction is dictated by a particularly pressing recommendation. There are even instances of chance–when it’s just a matter of a book cover catching my eye as I walk by.
And this leads me to Jason Starr’s Cold Caller– a “White-Collar Noir”–it’s the tale of a telemarketer who turns to murder as a solution for life’s little problems. Choosing to read Cold Caller was a case of the novel’s cover calling to me as the book languished unread on my shelf. It’s a great cover, isn’t it?
The protagonist and narrator of the novel is Bill Moss, a New York based telemarketer who lives with his girlfriend Julie. The novel begins with Bill having a very bad day when he’s beaten up on the subway, but the day rapidly gets worse as Bill falls foul of his supervisor Mike and his boss, Ed.
Life isn’t good for Bill. He used to work as a V.P for an ad agency, but something went wrong. He’d “intended to work” as a telemarketer until something better came along, but two years later, Bill is still at American Communications Association (ACA), cold-calling and making appointments for sales reps to “sell discount long-distance phone services to businesses.” It’s a living, but just barely. Even though Bill is one of the ACA’s most successful telemarketers, he still only works part time and depends on his girlfriend’s wages to pay the rent. Julie is patient, trusting and supportive, while Bill’s thoughts are scummy and manipulative:
“She had towelled off her face and now she stood in front of the bathroom door, staring at me with a serious, contemplative expression. Without make-up, she looked about thirty-five years old. Lines and areas of darkness were visible under her eyes and her skin was coarse and ruddy. That’s when I realized that I had Julie under my thumb, that I could do or say whatever I wanted and there was no way she would ever leave me. She was dying to get married and have kids, and in her mind I was her last chance to do it. Like a lot of single women, she firmly believed that there were no single men left in the world, and that if she didn’t marry the man she was with, she’d spend the rest of her life as a lonely old maid. If I walked away, she’d grab on to my ankles and beg me to stay.”
At first, the novel generates a certain amount of sympathy for Bill as he is squeezed and pressured by forces so much larger than him, but as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that there’s something not quite right with the storyteller. Perhaps it’s his skewed vision of life. Perhaps it’s how he manipulates his girlfriend, or it might be his obsession with prostitutes, but then again perhaps it’s because he commits murder….
This nasty little tale is told through Bill’s eyes, and while some authors use the first person narrative to reveal inner thoughts, Starr’s protagonist isn’t entirely honest with himself so we get a warped version of events. We see the world through Bill’s delusional eyes with him always waiting for the big break, someone to recognise his awesome talents. After all, since Bill thinks he’s special, he reasons that the whole world should feel that way sooner or later. But when Bill’s big break does come, what will he do with this opportunity?
Cold Caller is the second novel I’ve read by Jason Starr. A few months ago, I read Fake ID published by Hard Case Crime, and to be honest of the two books, I prefer Fake ID. Starr’s style is the same in both novels–he has a very plain writing style with no frills. This is rather refreshing, and reading Cold Caller is just like someone telling you his pathetic life story. The novel doesn’t require much from its reader, so in spite of its dark themes, overall it is a ‘light’, enjoyable escapist read. Oh and I should mention that there’s a very black sense of humour that runs through the book–some of it comes at Bill’s expense and the rest of it is directed at the poor sods in Bill’s life. In both of the Starr novels, the narrator is unreliable and well…a real nutjob. So in hindsight, I probably should have put some more time in between reading these two Starr novels as the theme was too similar. I suppose that’s where that planning thing comes in….