I will read anything that Charlie Huston is willing to write.
His stories are set on those streets behind the streets that you
drive down with your car windows up. More significantly, they deal
with the folks who are so far down that you don’t notice them
because you are avoiding the glances of the ones who look so
obviously dangerous. These are true characters --- not in the
literal sense so much as in the street sense, the type of people
you could comfortably go through your entire life not knowing. They
are, to put it another way, individuals who make a novel
fascinating because of their stone-cold unpredictability, the
nonexistence of a guide to or a roadmap of their actions.
The title, THE MYSTIC ARTS OF ERASING ALL SIGNS OF DEATH, refers
obliquely to the skill used by what are referred to as
environmental cleanup crews, the people who go in and restore the
scenes of suicides, untimely deaths and the like to their former
pristine conditions. Huston’s latest is in part about a
business named Clean Crew, which takes care of such matters, but is
primarily concerned with Webster Filmore Goodhue (or
“Web” to his friends).
Web is a former elementary school teacher, but has been on
slacker vacation for a year after his secondary involvement in a
traumatic event. He spends his time reading horror movie magazines
and functioning as a semi-gopher for Chev, his friend and roommate,
who is the owner-operator of a tattoo shop (which, incidentally,
gives Huston the opportunity to provide a description of a
room-clearing event near the beginning of the book). Web’s
relationship with Chev is rapidly running out of road, resulting in
Chev presenting Web with the ultimatum of finding some kind of
gainful employment or hitting the road.
A salvation of sorts occurs when Po Sin, an acquaintance of both
men, offers Web a job. Po Sin is the owner-operator of Clean Team,
and Web suddenly becomes immersed in the world of cleaning and
restoring some of the most disgusting hovels imaginable to
presentable, even pristine, condition. To his surprise, Web
actually finds himself attracted to, if not enjoying, the work.
That state of affairs results in his meeting the oddly attractive
and sharp-edged though vulnerable Soledad. Web is instantly
attracted to Soledad, who almost immediately draws him into a
scheme involving her abrasive brother and, of course, some very
sinister characters. Dangerously and at times hilariously flawed,
Web is ill-prepared to deal with his own problems, let alone
someone else’s, a state of being that ultimately and
believably turns out to be his greatest asset.
Huston is the type of author who has his reader gibbering
maniacally within the first few pages of any of his novels, and THE
MYSTIC ARTS OF ERASING ALL SIGNS OF DEATH lives up to those lofty
standards. His over-the-shoulder view of cleanups of the worst of
humanity’s actions bespeak either actual hands-on research or
the next best thing. And his characters? Try forgetting even the
most minor entity who flits through the book. From the guy in front
of the Harbor Inn to Mr. Big Ten-Four and Web’s father, you
will recall each and every one of them. These are the people and
the situations that Warren Zevon sang about. There’s no
higher recommendation than that.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 12, 2011