Rob Thurman, Nightlife (Roc Books, 2006)
Rob Thurman's first novel, Nightlife, has a beautiful and revealing cover. In the foreground, a dark youth crouches on a girder; behind him the skyline of New York rises at a vertiginous and unnatural angle. And no matter how you turn your head or the cover, you can't quite make the city painted there come out straight and true. Everything is twisted, and despite the fact that the brooding kid ought to be the crooked one, he persists in staying level in a slanted world. That is the spirit in which the story unfolds.
Caliban Leandros is the hero, villain and victim of Nightlife, and he moves through a subtly warped world compellingly built by Thurman. Cal is still a teenager; he is the spawn of a witch and a demon -- hence the name, from his fortuneteller mother -- and he is desperately on the run from his demon father. While Sophia, his mother, held him in a sort of indifferent contempt, his eldritch sire wants him badly -- and Cal, having been borne off to a hellish other world briefly in childhood, wants just as badly to stay out of his father's reach. He is aided in this enterprise by his elder half-brother, Nikos. Nikos is blonde, noble and deadly, a martial arts expert with a monk's calm and dedication; one suspects their mother Sophia must have lain with an angel before she met Cal's father.
Beginning with a classic hard-boiled adventure flashback, the story picks up its full momentum in New York, some years after Cal has been rescued from Hell by Nikos. The brothers live in a constant state of armed caution, making their living as bodyguards, bartenders and other fringe free-lancers on the darker side of the Big Apple. Sophie is dead, murdered in the fiery cataclysm in which Cal's father dragged him away to his unknown and unwanted patrimony. But the demon hordes, which the brothers call Grendels, persist in following them. They don't know what the Grendels want, or why they took Cal, or why their Prince fathered him in the first place, but it is growing more and more obvious that it was not a case of casual rape. The Grendel Lord wanted something specific in his offspring. And Sophia, who answered no more questions alive than she can now she's dead, had collaborated willingly. . . .
This book has an absolutely marvelous voice in Cal's first person narrative. The combination of Chandler-esque detective dialogue and a lyrically noir style of description are stunningly original. The reader's attention is captured and held from page one, and subsequently rewarded with a rich, fascinating and beautifully realized world. Cal's voice is cynical, bleak, loving, despairing of his own monstrousness -- but always believable.
To add to the fun, all the classic elements and inhabitants of faerie and horror are living in New York. Just like everyplace else, immigrants from these realms have flocked to the big city lights. And while some of them have clung to the Old Country Ways as firmly as Orthodox Jews, most of them have adjusted, and -- in a blackly hilarious way -- been thoroughly assimilated by New York. The bogle with the Brooklyn accent was one of my favorites, closely followed by the satyr making a living as a used car salesman. Big brother Nikos has a bodyguard gig with a tres chic 5th Avenue vampire. Thurman is in no way writing a farce or a parody, though -- she makes it all convincingly sensible and realistic. The bogle in Central Park, for instance, eats unwary joggers who tarry too long in the Rambles. And the troll under the Brooklyn Bridge is simply blood-curdling.
With this beautiful tone, cast and plot, it is especially jarring when the narrative ball is dropped with a hideous clang midway through.
Cal is possessed by a banshee, commissioned by the Grendel to take him over and force his subjugated body to obey them. Surprisingly, banshees do come in male and female forms: the ladies sing and predict death, the gentlemen haunt mirrors and are general purpose thugs. The rather shallow fiend who takes over Cal spends a good quarter of the book musing about all the grisly, gory fun he is going to have with Cal's flesh as his own property; he talks the talk at considerable length, but walks no walk at all. And to make it even more confusing, the banshee also narrates in first person -- his voice is almost indistinguishable from Cal's. It's just more cheerful and less believable. He does prove the basic banality of evil, but even knowing poor Cal is trapped in his own body, one is rapidly bored with the chortling, hand-rubbing, moustache-twirling monologue. I think Thurman may have been trying to present us with an inhuman Richard III explaining his evil to the audience; sadly, what she gives us instead is Snidely Whiplash.
This is my only complaint about Nightlife, and the only serious flaw. But it's a big one, since it knocks the reader for a loop and destroys the intimate connection with a fascinating protagonist. Luckily, the basic excellence of the plot re-surfaces, almost literally in the person of the valiant Nikos. Cal and the story line are both rescued, and the story barrels on to a resoundingly good finish.
Thurman is a new writer, and this is a splendid debut. While it does have a flaw, one can regard it as the Divine Flaw put in to prevent mere mortal craft from rivaling godly perfection. In the meantime, it's a grand read and hints at a considerable talent for the future. I think Rob Thurman will make good on that promise.