Category Archives: Starr Jason

Hard Feelings: Jason Starr

“I ordered a Scotch and soda. I put the glass up to my lips and paused, asking myself, Do you really want to do this? Myself said, You bet.”

Hard Feelings follows its first person narrator, Richie Segal as his life slides out-of-control. Richie is a salesman, once a top salesman of computer networks, but when the book opens, he’s in a slump. Sales call after sales call lead to bleak days at work, and to Richie’s boss hinting about termination. Something’s off with Richie. Perhaps it’s the alcohol. Perhaps it’s the pressure. Or perhaps it’s because he catches a glimpse of Michael Rudnick, an old neighbour from Brooklyn. ….

Richie and his wife, Paula, are a childless New York couple who live paycheck to paycheck. Their short evenings after work are composed of selecting which takeout to order, watching TV and walking the dog. It’s a daily grind, with the possibility of children and life in the suburbs the rewards at the end of the rainbow. Tensions exist between Richie and Paula, and at first it isn’t quite clear why Paula doesn’t want children. Perhaps it’s because her career is on the rise and she makes more money than Richie, or perhaps she’s having an affair. Richie, as our unreliable narrator, never quite tells the entire story. ….

Hard feelings

Richie’s sighting of Rudnick coincides with his career and marriage slump. Soon, he can’t stop thinking about Rudnick and how Rudnick molested him years earlier. Rudnick is now a successful lawyer, but Richie, reeling from bad memories mixed with booze, wants to make Rudnick pay.  Obsessed with Rudnick, suspicious that Paula is cheating on him, Richie’s life spirals out of control.

Richie Segal is a typical Jason Starr protagonist, a working man who’s pressured to breaking point by bills, work and relationships. The author creates a believable character, an ordinary working stiff who suddenly finds he can’t cope with life and only violence seems to let off pressure. As an unreliable narrator, at first we just get slivers of problems between reality and life as Richie sees it, but these moments become more obvious as the narrative continues.

Finally, my new workstation was ready. I organized myself and got to work as quickly as possible. I was so embroiled in what I was doing I almost forgot that I was sitting in a cubicle, until Joe from Marketing came over to me and said, “This really sucks, man.” Joe was a nice guy and I knew he meant well, but I still felt patronized. To everyone in the office I was a big joke now. They were probably whispering about me in the bathroom and by the water cooler: “Did you hear what happened to Richie Segal? He got kicked out of his office today.” Jackie, a young secretary, passed by and said “Hi, Richard.” When I had an office, she used to say “hello, Richard.” But now that I was a fellow cubicle worker she obviously felt comfortable and informal enough around me to say “Hi.” 

With Richie as the narrator, the story, of course, is filtered through his perception. So at times Richie doesn’t understand what his wife, Paula’s problem is or why the dog, Otis, cowers when Richie comes through the door. It’s a very human tendency to tell a story from our own slant, but this sort of character is Jason Starr’s specialty. Starr is not a stylist but his strength lies in getting into the heads of his male protagonists and following their twisted thoughts to the bitter end.

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Savage Lane: Jason Starr

“Fantasies seem great, but they’re just gateway drugs. You need more and more and then, when reality kicks in, you’re totally fucked.”

Various destructive fantasies and desires collide and converge in Jason Starr’s Savage Lane, a maliciously dark look at the lives of a handful of affluent suburbanites. There is a consistent subtext throughout this author’s work: the American Dream is Starr’s American Nightmare. So whether Starr is focusing on stay-at home dads, achieving upward mobility, the vagaries of employment, assertiveness, home defense, or as in the case of Savage Lane, life in the ‘burbs, expect a subversive look at American society and its values. Jason Starr’s novels are classified as crime & suspense, and while there’s no argument there, since Starr’s characters are often supposedly decent upstanding members of society before they go off the rails and slide into criminality, I’ll add the label Transgressive fiction.

Savage Lane, a quiet prestigious neighbourhood in affluent Westchester county is home to the two families who are central to this story. There are the Bermans: husband Mark, his wife Debbie and their two children: Justin and Riley. And across the street is delectable, divorced Karen Daily and her two children Elana and Matthew.  Due to the similarities in status, economics and the children’s ages, the Bermans used to be best friends with Karen and her now-ex Joe, but since the divorce, things have become more awkward. As a divorced woman who dates a lot of men through internet sites, Karen has become, in the eyes of the other women in the community, a suspected husband stealer, a “homewrecker.”

The Bermans’ marriage is on the rocks, and while Deb has some nasty secrets of her own, she suspects that Mark is having an affair with Karen. Mark is certainly feeding the fire by hanging around Karen, jogging with her every day, texting her constantly and grabbing her hand at a party. Karen is so immersed in her own problems, that she fails to see the warning light, and Mark’s relationship as a friend creeps into something else.

Starr’s characters are constrained by societal standards but they long, or are pressured, to bust out and reveal the beast within. So we see Mark’s obsession with Karen growing to dangerous levels, and Deb, who has a problem with alcohol, determined to cast herself in the role of victim so that she can divorce, and loot, Mark. While these two families spiral out of control (and this includes a girl fight at the local prestigious country club), there’s another character here who’s already on the board and is about to change the entire game.

savage laneThat’s as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss.

I loved Savage Lane for its nastiness, its dark, dark humour, and its subversiveness. The story is told from various viewpoints–and I’ll stress not multiple narrators. That leaves Starr always in control of his story. Even though the story unfolds from different characters (including the wildly unreliable) so that we see inside their heads, Starr gives his characters no place to hide. While the characters comfort themselves with justification and excuses, their weaknesses and foibles are glaringly and hilariously on display. One of the techniques Starr employs is to show the way we lies to ourselves in order to slide into certain slippery behaviour. Here’s Karen with her usual liquid breakfast:

She still felt nauseated and her head was killing her. After making sure she’d deleted all the texts she’d sent and received, she switched the phone to silent mode and put it away in her purse. Then she heard Casey clacking away down the stairs and a few moments later he came into the kitchen, panting, and went right toward the sliding screen doors. She let him out and then, watching the happy dog sprint toward the backyard to do his business, the thought, Dog, hair of the dog, that’s it, and she got a glass, went to the liquor cabinet in the dining room, and poured some vodka–not much, just half a glass, enough to get back.

I especially loved the scenes en famille, for Starr is merciless with his portrayal of pathological family life. There’s an irony to the whole set-up. Karen, addicted to exercise and trying to stay marketable, is desperately surfing dating sites to get her new man while Deb, sinking into alcoholism, tells herself she doesn’t need her husband around anymore. Caught in between these two is cologne-soaked, pathetic creeper Mark, who fancies himself as a Javier Bardem look-alike. Here’s a chaotic scene in which a police detective, Piretti, questions Mark about his wife and his relationship with Karen. Mark is trying desperately to downplay any family issues, but his resentful teenage daughter jumps in and reveals the rot. Even the dog gets in on the mayhem.

“Friends don’t text that much, especially grownups who are friends. That’s why Mom wanted a divorce, because she knew what was going on too, she wasn’t a fucking idiot.”

“Riley, that’s enough,” her dad said, raising his voice.

But Riley kept going, saying, “It’s true. That’s why she’d been acting so weird lately.”

“How was she acting weird?” Piretti asked.

“She’s very upset, she doesn’t know what she’s saying,” her dad said to Piretti.

“She was too acting weird,” Riley said.
She was distracted all the time, and she was drinking like crazy. Sometimes I’d come home from school and smell the alcohol on her breath. Saturday morning in the car on the way home from dance class, she was acting really weird.”

“That’s enough Riley.,” her dad said.

“Let her talk,” Piretti said.

[…]

Then Justin came into the kitchen, holding an X-Box joystick, and asked, “Is Mom home yet?”

“Is that why Mom wanted a divorce?” Riley said to her dad. “Because you were going to leave her for Karen?”

Now Casey came into the kitchen and was barking.

“Shut up,” Mark said to her, and maybe to the dog too.

Jason Starr is not a stylist, and neither is he interested in in-depth character analysis, so his books tend to look as though they are deceptively easy to write. He is not writing ‘great literature,’ but neither is that his intention; Starr’s novels (he’s also written a number of graphic and comic books) are modern pulp threaded with societal concerns and pressures, so here we see mouthy teenagers who lead lives their parents are unaware of, children who are more worried about the X-Box than a less-than stellar parent, and cell phones as a helluva way to get in trouble. Spearing characters who find themselves in positions in life without quite understanding how they got there, Starr’s strengths are his plotting and his vision of the confinements of the norms of society. Just as you think you have nailed the plot of Savage Lane, Starr barrels in out of left field and delivers surprise after surprise, so be prepared. Savage Lane, fueled by the triple horsepower of urban middle age angst, fantasy and obsession is Starr’s best novel yet.

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Cold Caller by Jason Starr

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.

cold callerAnd 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….

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Fake ID by Jason Starr

“Maybe it would take a little longer to get to Hollywood than I’d thought, but I’d get there eventually. I knew I had too much talent to go unnoticed forever.”

Jason Starr is a new author for me. He makes writing seem easy, and when the frank, down-to-earth narrator of Fake ID tells his sordid tale, it’s as though I’m listening, rather uncomfortably, to some loser telling a story as we sit on tatty bar stools in some dingy New York bar. While I admire clever novels that play with linguistic elements,  I also enjoy reading a novel that sounds like normal, relaxed human speech, and Starr’s Fake ID published by Hard Case Crime fits into this category. So if you have an aversion to swearing, then don’t bother with this book, but if you want to read a novel realistically narrated by a thuggish loser, well this is it.

The story is told by Tommy Russo a thirty-two-year-old New York bouncer fake IDwho tells himself that his employment at O’Reilley’s bar is just a “survival” job until he gets his big break as an actor, and with an audition for a dog food commercial on the horizon, well Tommy thinks he has reason to be optimistic. He leads a subsistence existence, working nights at the bar, and cadging free meals from the bar’s cook.  He gets a cut in rent on his vermin-infested 250 square feet apartment by cleaning & performing minor maintenance work in his grotty building. But Tommy has a problem–he’s a compulsive gambler, and when the novel begins Tommy’s at the track losing money:

“Now I only had sixty-four dollars left, including gas-and-toll money. I knew this wouldn’t be enough to last me the rest of the day so I got in line at the ATM to take money off my Visa card. There were four guys ahead of me. They looked like degenerates, wearing dirty jeans, sneakers and old winter jackets. Then I thought, How was I any better? Wasn’t I on the same line, waiting to take money off my credit card?”

At the track, Tommy runs into an old acquaintance, Pete, a foul-smelling Brooklyn shoe shop owner. Pete invites Tommy to be the fifth man in a horse-owning deal, with each man coming up with 10,000 for 1/5 ownership of a young, promising racehorse. At first Tommy  rejects the idea, but as he loses at the track and begins to mull over how shitty his life is, he decides to join the group. The only problem is…he doesn’t have 10,000.

As Tommy schemes for ways in which he can get his hands on a large chunk of money, his life begins to spiral out of control. At work, where he regularly picks up women for easy sex, he manipulates his cuckolded boss Frank–a sad little man who’s been harpooned by a frowzy, mean-tempered blonde who looked better when she was 100lbs lighter and didn’t drink scotch for her liquid breakfast. Careening between the pathological relationships in his life, and on endless gambling binges whenever he has a few dollars in his pocket, a picture begins to build up of a rather nasty character.

If you ever want to cite an example of an unreliable narrator, then stop here, because Tommy Russo is severely delusional. It’s not that apparent when the novel begins–we think he’s just another sad has-been clinging desperately to dreams of a Hollywood career. Everyone in Tommy’s life seems to know that Tommy isn’t going anywhere, and Tommy is the last one to get this. But as the novel wears on, it becomes creepily clear that Tommy is a sociopath and the novel rocks with Tommy’s dispassionate observations as he uses and abuses everyone in his life. As his life spirals increasingly out-of-control, Tommy’s delusions take over.

There’s a bleak dark humour here–well at least there is if you have my type of sicko humour. Tommy cherishes his dreams but is quick to slam others as “losers,” and I did have a laugh over Tommy stuffing himself with junk food while sitting and watching soap operas in his mousetrap of an apartment soothing himself with fantasies of when he’ll be a big shot racehorse owner:

“I only had about fifty dollars to my name, but I wanted to eat some food for a change. I bought cheeses–Swiss, cheddar, and a pack of those little triangle cheeses that come in the foil wrappers. I also bought a couple of kinds of dips and boxes of crackers. My days of hot dogs, pizza and sleazy diners were over with–from now on I was going to do everything with class.”

There are some hints cleverly weaved through the text that how Tommy sees himself is NOT how others see him. We only have his word for it that he’s this good-looking actor, and I’ll admit I had begun to wonder with all the junk food binges. But then there’s one scene when Tommy sees a copper he knew in high school and the copper doesn’t recognize Tommy. In fact he’s shocked at Tommy’s appearance and says “well, you look like you might’ve put on a few lbs.”

This unpretentious, unprepossessing little crime novel is a brilliant read, and much much cleverer than it may at first appear; it’s one of my favourite Hard Case Crime novels to date.  Jason Starr presents us with Tommy Russo’s manufactured world–a world in which Tommy thinks his talent as an actor gets him by in life, but in reality his acting skills cover the emotional disconnect between what Tommy thinks and what Tommy does:

“The first thing I said to myself when I saw her was, what the hell am I doing here? Without makeup and with her hair wrapped up in a towel she looked like she could be my grandmother. But it wasn’t her looks  that bothered me as much as her. I remembered how I’d always hated her, how I thought she was just a nasty drunk who treated her husband, a great guy, like a piece of dog shit. The last thing I wanted to do was hurt Frank more than I already had, but there I was about to fuck his wife.”

Someone told me once that I have this peculiar habit of enjoying reading about nasty people. The comment threw me at the time, but after thinking it over, I realized it’s true: I do like reading about nasty people, and the soulless Tommy Russo certainly fits the bill….

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