(Book 1 in the Awake in the Dark series)
by Paul Xylinides
Indie writers par excellence
Who’d a’ thunk it?
The joke about the camel is that it’s a horse designed by a committee, and one tends to approach a multi-authored work with the trepidation of riding a humped beast; however, while there is sardonic humour aplenty in Fade to Black, co-authored by Tim McBain and LT Vargus, the ride turns out to be as on the back of a well-trained steed that can pivot and curvet to the occasion.
A tarot card image of a hanging man recurs at the start of everyone of Jeff Grobnagger’s seizures and the hanging man is ‘yours truly’. Apparently his ritualistic confrontations with Death have meaning beyond himself and he finds that he has become a person of interest for some local cults with self-serving metaphysical paradigms. Similar to all things tarot, meaning comes from perspective. In addition someone’s daughter has disappeared and, naturally, the parent would like Jeff to employ his nascent other-dimensional talents to return her to his parental embrace.
For the conversational style to work with me, it has to be smart, economical, and thoughtful. Here it is all of these in this saucily contrived escapism — with all the excitement that a dumpster-diving, untreated epileptic, archetypal reluctant hero can provide as he attempts to escape yet another death having its way with him. Wait, that’s in his mind, or is it entirely? This protagonist submits all his life choices to a cool escapist philosophy that fits well with our socially estranged, entertainment armed, manufactured times where the reality of death is less real — much less real — than the reality of our mind’s fuelled distraction/pleasure zones.
A sardonic noir tone is not without an insouciant grin:
“A man puts his arm around a woman on the sidewalk across the street. She nuzzles against him, like he can keep her out of the rain.
“Good luck with that.”
And is well in line with a necessarily detached philosophy:
“It feels like the world is all one way streets that run away from you.”
“I don’t save damsels in distress.”
Grunge talk is nothing without a satisfyingly epiphanic backdrop:
“Maybe life isn’t some grand narrative with a spectacular ending like you might want. It’s a series of moments. They might seem too random to add up to mean something huge, but they each mean the world on their own. [E]veryone of these occasions is a world within a world. A little sliver of time where the doors to your imagination open up and anything is possible. You don’t worry about yesterday or tomorrow. You just are for a while.”
Tone is all:
“”It [the pad Thai] tastes like a dish of really good food mixed with about a quarter cup of garbage juice.’”
With a variation on the sentiment that “most people lead lives of quiet desperation,” the protagonist describes himself as one of those people whose “physical existence is like an injury they can never recover from.”
Maybe one of this writing duo is responsible solely for the punctuation, since the seamlessness of the composition is such that it is difficult to detect more than one voice.
No complaints with figures of speech like this:
“The nervousness builds as we cross the fresh blacktop, my stomach flopping around in my gut like a furious rainbow trout stranded on a muddy bank somewhere.”
A final whiplash delivers the coup de gras:
“Heat reflects from the surface of the ground, trying to smother us before we can go eat this food. It’d be a mercy.”
Where there is a fine eye for detail the familiar reads as new and fresh:
“The sun’s descent hits then points where everything looks like a dimmed half gray version of itself, which is heightened in certain areas by all of the shade the trees cast.”
While cults of a various order threaten, they remain at a distance and allow space for the seizure-prone Jeff Grobnagger to indulge in introspective activity that somehow connects him to them. The delicate self-analysis advances his character’s sensibility without wearing on the reader’s patience:
“Maybe I’m not so awful. Isolating the idea world from the physical world, I start to think maybe romance is still a possibility for me, and I’m just psyching myself out, yeah?
“And then I catch my reflection in the mirror, and I watch the worlds collide. When I look in my face, all of that positivity collapses like touching moth wings when they’re still wet.”
Deft touches abound:
“A photo of Amity as a child stares up at me, the lower half of her face obscured by a new smile shaped from shattered glass.”
One complaint in the editing — a huge chunk at the back-end of chapter 18 just repeats itself (I blame whoever’s doing the punctuation).
This review ends with the 1st volume in the series. On its basis, readers can safely invest what the price of a latte will get for them in the rest. For some aficionados of the written word, the transcendent effect of a single well-tuned sentence long outlasts the sense-filtered experience of a cup of java and, in the work of McBain and Vargus, the rewards apparently go on and on without the punishment of over-indulgence but, as in the best of all things transcendent, with the taste still present — as from the bean that the writers praise for being “weirdly acidic and bright, but good as hell.”
Is it easy or hard to be a writing duo? Who but they can say? However, when the results are seamless, the question is beside the point while leaving the two authors to divvy up the congratulations between themselves.
By the by, they also write a great “what is the meaning of sex?” scene. — “we are more like animals and more like spiritual beings at the same time somehow” — Read it and compare notes.