In 2004, Jim Fusilli, the rock and pop critic of the Wall Street Journal, wrote a terrific book about a grieving New York City private investigator called TRIBECA BLUES. Fusilli writes with understanding and compassion about emotionally damaged human beings, wrestling with irreplaceable loss. BILLBOARD MAN is the sequel to last year’s ROAD TO NOWHERE, a wonderful noir about a badly damaged but decent man that will keep you turning the pages.
Fusilli’s protagonist is a man with a past, a man with many names depending on the day and place, at least five by my count. One, Sam, was given to him by the Witness Protection Program after he testified in a mob trial, which got his beloved wife killed and sent him and his daughter underground. But the girl, now a college student and LA screenwriter, despises him for the death of her mother and wants nothing to do with him.
When we meet him, Sam is an anonymous man drifting around America. But in the first noir twist --- remember, in noir, things are not what they seem --- he is not your typical down-and-out drifter. Fusilli writes: “He’d been lying to himself. He wasn’t adrift. He’d sought, he’d found…He got far more than he deserved…He’d walked his wife into murder. His daughter scorned the thought that he ever existed. He was thinking that right now, right where he stood.” So after selling off his property and making sure his daughter was provided for with the proceeds of his wife’s estate, Sam, or whatever name he calls himself today, hits the road with a simple goal: “At the rate he spent, he believed he could stay lost forever.”
"BILLBOARD MAN is a fun read and a fine introduction to the series, which will leave you wanting to search out the first book if you have not already read it."
Sam is not your typical lost drifter or homeless man you see huddled on the street. And many of them, by the way, have their own stories of loss and crushing defeat, especially the numerous homeless vets, that we never bother thinking about as we rush by in our well-ordered universe. But nothing is well ordered in the noir world.
Sam stays in motels and sleeps during the day. He favors cities with light rail systems. Fusilli writes, “When he could not sleep the day away, he rode the trolleys, watching the city roll by.” But he always wears a new Oxford shirt and clean jeans. And he favors paperback books, which he can read while having his meals or a beer in a bar. He is the solitary man you see in a restaurant, always distant and in his own world.
But it is hard to cut off all human interactions in life, no matter the damage or how hard you try. And every now and then, he will meet another lonely and damaged human being in a bar and a one-night stand ensues. The last thing Sam is looking for is to put down roots again or start over. And it is during one such encounter with a woman in an Arizona bar that leads to a bloody bar room fight with a woman’s ex. Sam is capable of explosive violence. This leads to cross country murder and mayhem. But to steal from and paraphrase Al Pacino in Godfather III, the more Sam tries to stay lost, the more the past wants to drag him back in.
Unbeknownst to Sam, a Wall Street power broker who knows about his past is doing everything he can to track him down for vague reasons and has hired a homicidal ex-ghost warrior from the war on terror to find him. These actions will eventually endanger the life of Sam’s daughter, something he is powerless to stop.
Fusilli creates memorable and colorful characters here. Francis Cherry, the Wall Street manipulator, is “a mastermind for mischief with unfettered faith in man’s fallibility.” He is also more than a little mad. Goldsworthy, the mercenary, has been “corrupted by drugs, arrogance and a lack of accountability.”
Part of the historic allure for millions who came to these shores prior to the rise of the National Security State was that America was so big that it was a place where you could “get lost forever” if you had to or so desired, starting anew on the other side of the continent. But now, we are so wired and interconnected that somebody somewhere is keeping track of our movements --- all the time. Disappearing off the grid is not as easy as it once was, as Sam learns. He is eventually forced out of self-imposed exile in BILLBOARD MAN, his face literally projected to millions on an electronic billboard in Times Square.
He also has no choice but to come forward to help the woman whose ex he fought with in Arizona, causing Francis Cherry to wonder if he has become “a professional Samaritan.” But in this taut little thriller, everybody has an agenda, some not so secret, and desperation is never far from the surface. At one point, Cherry looks down from his office “to the hustle-bustle on Broad Street. A new week. Who among the huddled masses would fleece? Who would be fleeced? You never can tell. Yes you can. That mix of desperation and greed has its own stench. Sniff. Yep, there it is…”
Fusilli is a talented writer who writes fiction that echoes American reality. One looks forward to the next adventure featuring the anonymous wanderer. Until then, BILLBOARD MAN is a fun read and a fine introduction to the series, which will leave you wanting to search out the first book if you have not already read it.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on September 6, 2013