Monday, October 01, 2007

Mental Thriller

Nerve Damage, by Peter Abrahams, Read by Alan Nebelthau, Recorded Books, LLC, 2007

A year or so ago, I was turned on to a novel entitled Oblivion by Peter Abrahams. In that book, renowned detective Nick Petrov suffers from a head trauma leading to amnesia. We follow him as he uncovers the mystery surrounding his own recent activities and those of the people he knows and loves. The uncertainty of everything around Petrov, much like the detective in the brilliant film Memento, are what makes the novel so interesting. The actual mystery itself I rather consider secondary to Petrov’s search for the truth about himself.

In a similar vein, Abrahams’ most recent novel, Nerve Damage, features celebrated sculptor Roy Valois who very early on in the book gets back very bad biopsy results. Very specific lung cancer from asbestos exposure when he was just a kid, almost certainly inoperable and untreatable. Prompted by a friend’s stray comment and his own insatiable curiosity and with the help of a computer hacker friend, Roy breaks into the New York Times obituary database just to see what they will be running in the relatively near future.

Innocuous enough, Roy’s sketchy bio contains what appears to be a single factual error about where his dead wife Delia used to work. A stickler for detail, Roy contacts the writer of the obit to correct this single fact. The writer objects, goes back to check his facts, and then is murdered while on the phone with Roy. This sinister development puts Roy on the trail of the truth about his wife. In pursuit of these enigmas (and as a way of running from his illness and confronting his own mortality), Roy is dogged in his hunt.

Abrahams manages to balance out this mystery with actual day-to-day concerns of Roy’s which helps ground the book. Too often mystery or thriller novels operate or narrate in such a fashion as to exist in a vacuum. No one eats a sandwich or takes a nap and characters never have to deal with the messy issues of why their boyfriend or girlfriend doesn’t understand what they’re going through. In Roy’s case there is his girlfriend who he, rather insensitively, shields from the knowledge of his cancer and essentially dumps as his investigations take over his life. Relationships being messy affairs, she periodically pops up in his life, reminding him of everything he’s losing.

There is also Roy’s experimental treatment for his cancer. Here Abrahams reveals acute psychological reasoning as we watch Roy groping with his unaddressed feelings regarding his impending death. Trying to keep himself distracted with this growing mystery, Roy fails to accept what doctors tell him regarding treatment and his own care, suffers several set backs resulting in fainting fits and short-term comas, and pins all his hopes on a highly experimental cocktail of medications. The flaw here is that there’s too much going on in the story to really get deep into Roy’s personality, and the unraveling of his health and his mental stability sometimes get shorter shrift than they deserve. We can admire Roy Valois but we can’t really sympathize with him.

Abrahams’ tries gamely to work up some sympathy for Roy with a further plot complication down the road. Mostly he succeeds in the story’s second half when it becomes clear that Delia didn’t die in a helicopter crash as Roy had always believed. She lived for some time after that, and she might even have lived long enough to carry her pregnancy to full-term. Roy’s search for the truth about his wife then becomes a poignant search for his (possible) daughter.

Part of this search takes him into dizzying chases with what might be members of the CIA or a separate clandestine intelligence/special ops team, financed by shadowy millionaire businessmen. Valois’ inability to quite put the pieces together can be attributed to his distractions, but Abrahams needs to work harder to hide these pieces from the reader as well. What made Oblivion such a treat was just how out of focus the final picture was throughout and how each new revelation shifted pieces of the puzzle around. Here, the actual shape is easily enough determined long before and it’s only details of no significance that get altered as the story progresses — save for the new line of inquiry involving Roy’s daughter.

While the big climax hinges on some rather implausible occurrences and some pretty severe coincidences, Abrahams is enough of a skilled plotter to move things along with precipitous speed. The book’s final pages feel more written as if for a cinematic treatment and have the same cavalier fantastical quality. While Nerve Damage is a fun read, it doesn’t necessarily go the whole distance in securing Abrahams’ rep as an inventive literary mystery writer. While he may be carving out his own peculiar DOA-style niche of mysteries, we will need a little more life in the next book to keep on picking them up.

Recorded Books managed to time this one well, almost every disc ending with a cliff-hanger style impetus to move on to the next one. Alan Nebelthau reads beautifully, not much for voices save accents where he delivers slightly British inflected Indian English, New Englander, and Texan with aplomb.

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