Category Archives: De Feo Ronald

Solo Pass by Ronald De Feo

“People continued to pass by, and I meant nothing to them, as they meant nothing to me. Who needed to court their approval? Why had such a need ever been important to me? And this particular group was especially pitiful. Here they were, just leisurely strolling about, gazing in windows, stopping in shops, hurrying off to drinks or a late lunch, while a thief and a madman traveled among them, by their side, almost shoulder to shoulder. And the fools didn’t even know it. They believed themselves to be perfectly safe.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for novels told by an unreliable narrator. I also have a perverse interest in any book set in an asylum, so add those two factors together and throw in a name I already know, Ronald De Feo, who delighted me in 2011 with his extremely unusual novel, Calling Mr. King  –the story of a hit man who finds an inner life. It’s a triple whammy. How could I lose?

solo passOtt, a man in his 30s, is our unreliable narrator. He once had a career as a New York editor, but his life began a downhill spiral when his wife Elizabeth left, and after a meltdown, he found himself being carted off to the mental health ward at Essex Hospital. Well, this is Ott’s version of events, and as the novel continues,  we discover, of course, that Ott’s view of life is inaccurate. His problems extend far beyond the breakdown of his marriage, and if anything, marriage was a failed attempt at normalcy and connection with another human being. But hey, things could be worse–there’s also a violent ward at Essex and Ott isn’t on it. He also isn’t being shipped off to Courtland, a hospital for more permanent cases, full of “frigging zombies talking to walls and chairs.” No, life is looking up for Ott; he’s on the brink of being given a solo pass to spend a few hours outside of the hospital by himself. A solo pass is a trial run of sorts, a taste of full release and theoretical freedom . Will Ott be able to handle it?

According to seasoned patient, Mandy, a young trust fund woman, there’s a knack to being released. She advises Ott to “just tell them what they want to hear.” ‘Them,’ of course refers to the doctors in the ward–the ones who make the decisions about medication and further treatment. She also advises Ott not to open his mouth to rant against his bête noir, that “uncouth bastard,” Prodski, Ott’s former therapist, and as it turns out, the man Ott blames for the breakdown of his marriage and his life. Mandy is an expert on solo passes–on her last one, she immediately found another former patient and had sex. These days we’d call Mandy a sex-addict, but back in the 60s she’d be on the nympho ward in Sam Fuller’s spectacular over-the-top film, The Naked Kiss (yes, one of my favourites).

Solo Pass takes us through Ott’s preparations for a few hours of ‘freedom’ in one afternoon. Of course, since we are privy to Ott’s innermost thoughts while his doctor is not, we get a sense of whether or not he’s ‘ready’ to fly solo, or whether this is a risky venture:

“Any of those strange feelings lately?” Dr. Petersen asked, referring to those feelings that used to creep up on me–at my job, at home with my ex-wife, just about anywhere and at any time. There I’d be by the window of my office staring out at the office buildings across the way or sunk down in my favourite easy chair at home studying Elizabeth reading on the sofa, and I’d suddenly feel that I didn’t belong, that I had been placed in someone else’s life, that everyone and everything around me was foreign, unfamiliar, wrong.

No, I told her. None at all. And I smiled again, this time to indicate that I now regarded those feelings as rather ridiculous, a product of an illness that was no longer with me. Why the very mention of them amused me more than anything else. I conveyed this amusement well. Yes, I believe I was very convincing.

Through Ott’s memory, glimpses of his married live with Elizabeth emerge along with scenes of his hostility at work:

And when I discovered that my immediate boss, Richard Lorch–a smug, officious nuisance–had an aversion to office plants, considered them bourgeois and decorative clichés, I brought in more. “What’s the point?” he had the nerve to ask one day when he caught me hanging up a new addition. Perhaps to annoy you, I answered in my head.

Apart from his relationship with Mandy, Ott also chats with other patients, including  Wally, a man addicted to cheesy TV programmes and Tommy, a man with a history of violent behaviour:

He held up a sheet of paper covered with what looked like graffiti–words, circles, cylinders in red and blue ink–quite a mess really, an aggressive, violent one at that, “My plan for attacking Iran,” he said, and went on to explain that the dozens of circles represented tanks, our tanks, thousands of them, and that they would form a line and sweep down into the country and destroy everything in their path. And then they would get air support from thousands of fighter jets–the cylinders–that would be firing on anything the tanks missed.

“Fuckin’ great, right?” he said when he finished detailing his battle dream,. “We’ll wipe out all those fucks. Right?”

One of the subtler aspects to the novel is the idea that certain bizarre behaviours are condoned by society while others are deemed unacceptable, and of course, the real question here is just who gets to decide which behaviours are ok while other behaviours are not. For example, Ott’s uncle insists on dressing smartly to visit graves. It’s a sign of respect, he argues, while Ott can’t see the point. However, when Ott calls his own answering machine and leaves himself a message this is considered most peculiar by Uncle Arthur. Bottom line, once you’re deemed ‘unstable’ good luck getting that label changed.

In this highly engaging novel, Ott presents his version of events, but we are still able to see cracks in the narrative, and eventually a well-formed picture of what really happened emerges.  Are Ott’s workmates “cool or just plain indifferent?” And why did the secretary resign “for personal reasons?” This is a story of a man who doesn’t fit in, and his attempts to do so have failed abysmally. Now with time out, therapy and the appropriate medication, what will happen during this test run–a solo pass for a few hours? The novel’s conclusion didn’t go in the direction I perversely urged, but that is, I think, my personal preference, and not the fault of the story. Ultimately, author De Feo shows that the weight of conformity and a desire to belong to a social group can be both a terrible burden, an overwhelming challenge, and oddly enough a liberating choice. Some of us just have to go farther to find a comfort zone.

Review copy

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2011–It’s a Wrap

It’s never easy to whittle a year of some truly great books down to just a few personal preferences, but here goes my completely arbitrary categories anyway (in no particular order):

Novels that continue to haunt me: Little Monsters by Charles Lambert and My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Perhaps the best Simenon I’ve read to date: Dirty Snow

Best of the seven Jim Thompson novels read for my noirfest: Pop 1280. The Killer Inside Me came a very close second, but the nasty sense of humour in Pop 1280 ultimately won the day.

Speaking of nasty sense of humour, the award has to go to Henry Sutton’s FABULOUS Get Me Out of Here and The Pets by Bragi Olafsson

For crime, it doesn’t get better than Drive by James Sallis.

Best classic noir: Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes and Hell Hath No Fury by Charles Williams (both made into films, btw).

Best 20th C American: The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone by Tennessee Williams

Best Classics, French: Gobseck  by Balzac. Russian: The Duel by Chekhov and The Eternal Husband by Dostoevsky. British: The Trumpet Major by Thomas Hardy.

Best new American release: Calling Mr King by Ronald de Feo

Best new British Fiction: The Old Romantic by Louise Dean, King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher–both of these were the second books I’d read by these authors and the reading enjoyment firmly sealed me as a fan of both.

Best non-fiction: The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal

So thanks to all my readers and all those who left comments, and also thanks to the authors who sweated blood and tears over the novels that enriched my life beyond measure in 2011.  With a good book, life is never boring.

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Calling Mr King by Ronald De Feo

“I’ve unleashed an architectural mental case.”

Calling Mr King by Ronald De Feo is the story of a hit-man who discovers a life beyond his work, and for someone who’s been traveling the globe assassinating a fair number of people, this intellectual  ‘awakening’ begins to cause problems. De Feo’s clever character-driven plot follows the hit-man as he steps away from his unexamined life and begins to discover a world beyond his weapons. The result is an excellent, unusual and intense character study which combined with the book’s unexpected dark humour makes Calling Mr King one of my finds of the year.

The book’s title is actually the modus operandi with which the shadowy organisation called the Firm keeps in contact with their top hit-man. This American-born assassin who hails from New York state has one talent, and it’s a talent he marketed when he had nothing else to sell. He’s a superb shot, and this makes the hit-man a valuable commodity.  Hits are conducted for the Firm on a world-wide scale, and during the course of the tale, the hit-man travels to Paris, London, New York and Barcelona. When given a new job, he hops a plane to his destination, and then waits in a hotel room for the phone call. An anonymous caller will ring and ask to speak to Mr. King. That’s the signal for the hit-man to find the nearest public phone, call his contact and receive instructions for his next hit.

When the book begins, the hit-man is in Paris. The city is wasted on the assassin; he dislikes the French (but then he dislikes people in general), and at one point he tells a Parisian taxi driver to “go choke on a snail.” Paris may be a tourist destination, but to the hit-man, it’s just another hotel in another town, with another man to kill–the sooner the better:

All these people around us were of absolutely no importance. They didn’t really exist anymore. They were part of the scenery. They were nothing. Paris now contained only him and me.

He’s known for his efficiency in tracking his target and establishing a pattern of behaviour, even forming a strange sort of “bond” with the victim as he gets to know his routines and some aspects of his life. This time it’s different; the killer finds his Parisian target “exhausting.” The hit-man tracks his victim day after day as he “bounced around Paris”  for appointments, shopping, dates with friends, a meeting at an art gallery, and an evening at the opera. The hit-man realises that there’s no clear established pattern of behaviour this time–his victim who’s like a “damn kangaroo” is packing his day with appointments and activities:

I became absolutely convinced that he knew his days were numbered. And since he knew, he wanted to get a lot of living done before the end. What I was watching then, all of this peculiar energy, was simply a pathetic attempt at a last fling.

As the days multiply without a clear, safe opportunity for assassination, something begins to happen to the hit-man. He becomes extra cautious, and he begins to wonder if he’s losing his edge. While the Firm is impatient for the contract to be completed, the hit-man begins to wonder about his victim. Was it “last-minute curiosity? A kind of softening.”

When he returns to London, the hit-man, who’s given the name Peter Chilton, by the firm, is a little shaken by the events in Paris. The next hit takes place in Derbyshire, and once again, Chilton hesitates, and this hesitation–a sort of emotional involvement or interest in his victim–leads to some complications. As far as the Firm is concerned, Chilton screwed up big time:

You see, if you had fucked up this way in the city, I don’t think it would have caused such a stink. After all, city life has its hazards. You wanna live here, you gotta take your chances. Sometimes people get caught in the cross fire. Sometimes they’re hit by stray bullets. It doesn’t happen here like in New York, which is the fuckin’ Wild West, but it happens. And, of course, we have all those crazy mick bastards running loose blowing off heads, legs, dicks and time they feel like it. But it’s all part of living in good old London. You understand.  

Like I said, if this old man had been shot here, I don’t think it would’ve been noticed so much. Nobody would’ve been  happy, of course, and there would’ve been some bad press, but the fact is it wouldn’t have been unusual enough to make a really good story. He was an old bugger too, so it wasn’t as if he had years ahead of him. ‘Old Man Killed in Street Shoot-Out.’ That would have been it. But what happens instead? The old bugger gets his head blown off in some fuckin’ field in Derbyshire. You see the drama here? The oddness? When was the last time you heard of a pensioner being gunned down in a field in Derbyshire, or, for that matter, in any bloody country place? You get my drift? Nothing much ever happens in places like Derbyshire. Mostly what they get in the counties are serial lunatics. And that’s because of boredom more than anything else. You stay in the country long enough and either you grow brain dead or else you turn into a fuckin’ madman. You begin to hate your wife or girlfriend or maybe even your very own mum. And before you know it, you’re roaming the countryside chopping up women. Very sick, but there it is. And yet when you look at it, these lunatics are pretty rare. Maybe one turns up every two years, three years. Maybe that’s because most people get so brain-dead in the country they don’t even have the energy to go crazy.

As a result of his screw up, he’s sent on a ‘holiday’ back to New York by the Firm. This seems like punishment, or it just may be until things calm down, but deciding that his future with the firm is murky, Chilton plunges into his holiday with a great deal of enthusiasm, delving into his new-found interest in Georgian architecture. Soon Chilton begins resenting his work as it interferes with his reading, and when the Firm orders him to leave the city, he takes a trip back to his old home town–now withered and gutted by a lack of industry. In this bleak town, Chilton’s memories reveal a bleak childhoodwith zero chance for personal enrichment.

As Chilton moves across the globe, this man whose original identity has been eradicated, begins to form another self. Chilton tells himself that “except for my somewhat destructive occupation, I was a pretty decent sort,” and really treads into unreliable narrator territory.  There’s a definite splitting as Chilton, the killer, morphs or at least reinvents himself as Peter Chilton, English gentleman of leisure and taste and even  the genteel, urbane Sir Peter Chilton at one point:

I stopped in at the Rizzoli Bookstore, which was wood-paneled and had a kind of English feel to it. Chilton seemed to fit in here. Wealthy snobs roamed about with their wealthy little shopping bags–Tiffany, Gucci, Bergdorf, Goodman, Bally. Fashionable foreigners jabbered to one another. I noticed a couple of well-dressed wops jawing away over some wop fashion magazines–they always sounded so damn dramatic, like ham actors. Calm down, I felt like telling them. How in hell can you get so worked up over a few dumb magazines? Chilton suddenly stepped in here. They’re always amusing these Italians, he thought, remembering his various trips to Rome and Venice. Spirited. Fun-loving. Yes, good old jolly Italians. You can always count on them when you’re feeling a little down.

As Peter Chilton fabricates an imagined life–complete with country estate, a posh flat in London, and a third home in Nice, he continues to absorb architectural facts and begins to feel the birth of an interest in art. How will the hit-man–a man who’s disinterested in everything and everyone align his old self with his new interests? Can both sides of this man live within one skin?

Look at these poor excuses for town houses, he thought, I thought, we both thought.

Copy courtesy of the publisher, Other Press, via netgalley. Read on my kindle

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