Book Review: The Mystic Arts of Erasing all Signs of Death
The Mystic Arts of Erasing all Signs of Death.
By Charlie Huston
New York, Ballantine Books, 2009.
If you like a good romp through murder, mayhem, and mess, you want to read this book. The title alone is enough, no? With dynamite writing (no pun intended; see below), characters you care about (despite your best intentions), and non-stop, somewhat-crazed action, this book is one you can't put down.
Already you know that death can be messy. It doesn't always happen in the hospital, where folks know how to deal with it, how to make it go away. On its surface Huston's story is about one of those cleanup crews that come in after a messy death. Our hero, Web, finds himself working for such a crew, and the story begins. Chapter titles such as "till his neighbors smelled him" and "pipe bomb in the ass" suggest the grittiness of the book; Huston does not spare the stinky, gory details (including cleaning tips). Others, such as "to keep him from crushing my spine" tell you that this book has more than its fair share of violence. In truth, though, the book and the violence are so over the top that the latter takes on an almost cartoon character; think Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, with blood and guts, some pain and death.
When we meet Web, he is your basic slacker and underachiever. There might not be anyone in his life he hasn't let down. He has trouble thinking or speaking in full sentences. This guy is seriously messed up and you don't want to care about him. But he somehow sneaks under your skin. Naturally he has a back-story. Po Sin, who hires Web's sorry behind, is in the midst of an escalating (and increasingly violent) cycle of competition in the trauma cleaning business—a decent enough guy if you can ignore at least some of what he does. After all, he takes good care of his family and is very conscientious about quality. Even Po Sin's good-for-nothing nephew, Dingbang ("just Bang!" a preference everyone ignores), has some redeeming, well not charm exactly, but something.
Naturally not everyone who calls in the trauma cleaners is on the up and up. The new kid takes a call for a questionable case (with a hot client) and the story line takes off, careening through an amazingly convoluted plot. But of course it isn't really the plot that is so central here, though it does make a wonderful hanger for this story of loyalty, love, redemption, values, and more. Although this is not a political tale, it does touch on racism and human trafficking of immigrants.
A few warnings are in order. This is Huston, so there is a lot of violence, as mentioned above. There is even more cussing than violence. Perhaps most important, whatever you do, do not read this book on the bus or anywhere in public or you are guaranteed to embarrass yourself beyond hope, laughing like a total fool. When you find yourself reading aloud the bits that get you laughing that hard, so your friends and loves ones won't have you hauled away, don't say you weren't warned.
An earlier version of this review appeared on GoodReads.