Written by Ed Kurtz — Although Kurtz had been published previously, 2014 was something of a breakout year for him. His output included two well-received novels, The Forty-Two and Angel of the Abyss, as well as the excellent novella Freight. Last year was a bit quieter, but now we have in our hands Nausea. Like Sartre’s novel of the same title, we have a character dealing with the angst of his existence, only this particularly character is Nick and his existence, well… it’s as a hitman.
Nick is successful in the sense that he hasn’t been caught yet, but he doesn’t earn much for his work and can’t turn it away. He’s based in an un-named American city and has just finished his latest job, which was messier than he would have liked. More than that, Nick’s work is starting to make him feel sick. He tries to tell himself it’s something he’s eaten, but we already know that what Nick is trying to deny. His killing days are coming to an end.
To explain why this is happening Kurtz takes us back in time to Nick’s initiation. Nick is 20, and meets Misty Thorne, a fatalistic hooker whose luck is even worse than his. Still a young man and green behind the gills, he falls hard for her and follows a man he saw staring at her. The man heads to the Midnight Cowboy Oriental Massage, but turns out not to be a regular john, but a pornographer specialising in a particularly sick niche market. Nick’s disgust turns to anger and after a few crazy moments both the pornographer and the madam of the establishment are dead.
After that double murder, Nick fell into killing for money and kept a secret record in a notebook. Back to the present and there are 35 hits on his list. As he awaits his next job – a coded note will be left in a bus depot locker – for reasons he can’t explain, Nick begins following a young couple he saw in a diner. He treats them as if they were an assignment, shadowing them as time allows, learning their habits and working out where he would kill them. Nick is not getting paid for this, he knows it is ridiculous and possibly dangerous, but he can’t seem to stop himself. Perhaps it was their carefree happiness that made him notice them, perhaps Nick needs to show he is not losing his sharpness. But the nausea just won’t go away. What Nick can’t admit is that this kind of irresponsible and unprofessional behaviour is just one more sign that his career as a hit-man is coming to an end.
Meanwhile, Nick’s go-betweens still have work for him – work that he finds it hard to focus on, having to deal with the unwanted return of his conscience. Nick’s problems are of no concern to his employers however, and as the jobs stack up, one after another, Nick will have to find some way to keep his head in the game.
Angel of the Abyss was impressive for a number of reasons – crime blended with horror, deft characterisation, great pacing – but what was most telling was Kurtz’ handling of a complex narrative. It was really two mysteries in one. Once again, Kurtz’ storytelling skills are to the fore and he never lets the flashbacks disrupt the momentum of the present day story. The familiar tale of the flawed man seeking redemption is given a fresh twist as Nick tries grimly to deny his humanity. This does make for light reading, and Nausea is a book you have to commit to. There is precious little light in the darkness… perhaps too little. Freight and Angel of the Abyss were also dark but felt more balanced in this respect.
This kind of psychological thriller is enjoying something of a renaissance, and if you like a drop of the dark stuff, then Nausea will be for you.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars