Jon Bassoff returns with his third slice of psycho-noir via American indie publisher DarkFuse. Readers familiar with his previous novels, Corrosion and Factory Town, will know that this author writes dispatches from the outer limits of crime fiction. His characters are besieged by madness and perversion, and the narratives have a fractured, nightmarish quality making it difficult to distinguish between what is conscious reality and psychodrama.
With this book, Bassoff has reined his style in somewhat, resulting in a story that is easier to follow than his previous ones. If you’re new to the author, The Incurables might be the best place to start, but be warned: Bassoff is still far from being a mainstream writer.
Let us begin with the cast. Dr Walter Freeman is a disgraced psychiatrist, having fallen from favour because of his practice of the transorbital lobotomy, performed with knitting needles and without anaesthetic. A true believer, he roams the country performing his surgery on all manner of sinners and malcontents, convinced he is relieving suffering and saving lives. His assistant is Edgar Ruiz, a former patient and now a listless empty shell, whom Freeman cured of his murderous tendencies with two swipes of his scalpel.
Durango Stanton is 16 and lives with his father in the woods outside of town. They survive on the squirrels and rabbits that his father catches, and from whatever small amounts of money they make from preaching. His father became convinced after the death of his mother that Durango is the second coming of Christ, and that he can raise the dead. On the days his father stays sober, they set up a stand at the local funfair and while his father preaches, Durango sits on a homemade throne wearing a crown of thorns. That they are met daily with scorn and mockery, particularly when his father forces him to try to perform a miracle, never seems to cause more than a temporary loss of faith.
Scent is barely older than Durango but has already killed more than once. She lives with her mother, Baby, and can barely remember her father. He disappeared after a robbery and Baby has never been able to face the likely truth – that he is either dead or in prison. Instead she clings to the fantasy that one day soon he will return to his family and tell them where he buried the money he stole. Scent and Baby live in appalling poverty, with Scent forced into prostitution to keep them fed. The girl has become increasingly embittered towards Baby, convinced that her mother knows the location of the stolen cash, but in her grief and madness, won’t reveal the secret.
When Scent and Durango meet, they begin a tenuous relationship, united by their shared feelings of being trapped by family commitments. When Freeman arrives in town the young lovers begin to realise that his ‘cure’ might just be the answers to their prayers. Durango hopes that his father may overcome his grief at the loss of his wife, but Scent just wants a more compliant Baby to tell her where the loot is. But as Ruiz begins to show some emerging violent tendencies, perhaps Freeman’s cure isn’t all he thinks it to be.
The Incurables is a fine example of character-driven crime fiction. There is little action, though Bassoff does have a subplot about three brother hunting Scent for revenge after she murdered the fourth, allowing Bassoff to show off his genre chops. All of the characters are damaged in some way, and only Durango could be said to be an innocent. Most of the conflict is internal, and this might put you off if you’re looking for the kind of thrills delivered by more mainstream crime fiction.
Patience is rewarded, though. This is a strongly thematic book, and Bassoff explores the cost of loyalty, whether to family or to an idea, and the point where faith becomes madness. It has more depth to it than most crime fiction, and it is a book I found myself thinking about after finishing. But it is not a dry, intellectual read by any means, and the fine ending packs a considerable emotional punch. I think the novel ends the only way it could do.
For another fine example of psycho-noir, try Richard Thomas’ Disintegration.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars