Preston Lang’s discreetly funny debut crime novel The Carrier is an amoral story about semi-decent, semi-depraved, mostly-human people who eat and argue and screw genuinely enough as they pursue their proverbial pot of gold in parts unknown of the U.S.A. Some get what they got coming, some get less, others more, but always around the corner is another day and another twist of the knot and who knows if it’s money, drugs, gold, or death that awaits.
Readers may not know that the man behind Preston Lang spent the late 90’s living in a dusty little corner of Southern Africa, where both his unique outlook on crime and his affinity for the off-beat were entered into evidence: his home-alarm system of Carlsberg empties mustered around an unlocked wooden door; his entertainment for high-end guests at the ambassador’s Fourth of July reception – tickling the ivories to the tune of Oh, Canada.
Just a quick look at the Preston Lang blog tour will reveal what lies behind The Carrier’s finest asset: its various shades of low-key humor, deadpan delivery, and bizarre juxtaposition. Take, for instance, the contents of sex offender Danny Chin’s apartment: “…Other than a clarinet and a red cape there was nothing that really indicated this was the residence of a pervert.”
In this voice The Carrier weaves three narrative threads, starting with the most coherent and engaging: the relationship between drug courier Cyril and stick-up girl Willow. From the opening conflict, set in a college bar, Cyril proves as disarming an anti-hero as the easygoing narrative voice would suggest. “The frat boy had banged on the bar with a spoon and made two loud yips at a shampoo commercial…” In response, Cyril “politely [tells] the boy to stop acting like a fuck-monkey.” No yelling. No screaming. Just polite advice: Stop acting like a fuck-monkey.
Naturally the frat boy wishes bodily harm on Cyril. Enter Willow, who in her own frank and pointed style advises Cyril of his options. He can “kick their asses with a really cool expression on [his] face”, or he can leave the back way. “Where’s the back way?” Cyril wants to know. Then he offers a path of even less resistance. He’ll stay and chat up this girl with the “low, tangy” voice until the frat boys get bored and forget about him. Better, he says, than returning to his motel room to steal soap.
A relationship that begins on such footing promises intrigue. Willow draws her gun – why does this co-ed have a gun? – to save Cyril from a beating. Soon (but only after sex!) the gun is pointed at Cyril himself. The betrayals and counter-betrayals continue as they pursue a hazy trail of drugs or money or gold, they aren’t always quite honest or clear among themselves, across the American heartland. What the betrayals teach them about each other is that, whatever the treasure turns out to be, it can’t belong to both of them and their relationship must end in an unmarked grave in the middle of an unnamed wood.
Betrayal also lies at the broken heart of the second narrative. Sex-offender Danny Chin and his beefcake partner-in-crime Marcus pursue Cyril and Willow in their own quest for a score. Chin wants money, and Marcus chases wealth to win the love of his girlfriend, Saida. Marcus almost succeeds, but Saida leaves him, taking the goods for herself. Enter one of the novel’s few “real” criminals, who in an effort locate his boss’s loot tethers Marcus to the bed, stuffs a sock in his mouth, and binds him wrist and ankle with Saida’s pantyhose. Pathetic, lovelorn Marcus still has only loving thoughts for the girl who stole his 900 grand. “The sock was still in his mouth, secured now by pantyhose – Saida’s – now dry from the night hung by the sink. Marcus loved the way she did things like that… He wished she’d come back to him.” But she won’t, because this is crime fiction and there are no happy endings.
The more expert criminals get their turn in narrative three, although Duane and Inez are probably too good for the criminal enterprise to which they belong – an outfit more silly than sinister. After all, mastermind Pat Sajak seems to be withering under the influence of his own narcotics and is hobbled by strange sexual proclivities like having plastic army men tossed at his wiener by a pretty Puerto Rican gum-chewer.
Slow at times, often dead funny, the book entertains without pretense before racing through a brutal, breathless, corkscrew finish.
By Preston Lang
280 Steps, March 2014