by Harlan Coben
Published by Delacorte Press
336 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Fathers and Sons and the Whole Damn Thing
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
Figures. I finally get around to reading one of Harlan Coben's popular Myron Bolitar books and he blows the whistle on the whole series. The buzz is that Darkest Fear will be the last novel to showcase the Yoo-Hoo-slurping sports agent/detective for some time to come. And that's too bad, because I enjoyed the hell out of it. Despite the fact that, as its title suggests, this latest entry in the series isn't quite the laughfest that earlier installments are reputed to be.
It's easy to understand this series' popularity. Myron is an affable and appealing character, a former star college basketball player turned Harvard law school grad and sports rep, a mild-mannered Everyguy with the heart of a lion and the worldview of a precocious sitcom child. Which is probably appropriate, since Myron's cultural reference points tend to be right out of the television/pop culture of the 1970s (everything from Jim Croce songs to episodes of All in the Family gets a mention). Essentially, he's the guy next door, but with better lines. He even fantasizes about his common-man status. "It's my nature," he confesses at one point in Darkest Fear. "I meet a woman, and I immediately picture the house in the suburbs and the white picket fence and the two-point-five kids." Sure, he may be living in the heart of Manhattan right now, but his heart will always remain in the 'burbs. I mean, the guy didn't even leave his parents' home until the ripe old age of 34.
But the real hook here is that somehow, despite his constant, humble declarations that "I'm a sports agent, not a detective," Myron finds himself acting like a private eye with somewhat alarming frequency (six previous books!). Imagine not Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled Philip Marlowe going down those mean streets, but rather the slightly neurotic guy who lends you his power saw and coaches Little League. Imagine Howard Engel's Benny Cooperman as written by Robert B. Parker and you have Myron Bolitar.
Of course, coming into what is now a long-running series this late in the game is more than a little disorienting, and Coben isn't big on backstory. He just takes it for granted that everyone's been following along ever since Myron's first adventure, in Deal Breaker (1995), keeping their own scorecard. And given the series' popularity, that's generally a safe bet. Past events are alluded to more than explained. So it took a rookie like me a while to figure out who was who and why I should care. Thank goodness I live with a devoted fan who could set me straight. This was especially important since the book apparently wraps up several loose threads from Myron's history -- not just his recent adult past (he's just coming out of a broken relationship and his company, MB SportsReps, has had a few setbacks), but his college days and even his childhood.
As the story begins, Myron is back home in New Jersey, visiting his parents but feeling a little disoriented. After all these years, his folks are selling the family digs -- a direct result of Myron's having moved out and his father's recent health scare. It's slowly dawning on poor Myron that his parents aren't getting any younger and that nothing is forever. Alas, he doesn't handle these sorts of fundamental changes well. Looking around his old neighborhood, he petulantly points out that "the Kaufman house had always been yellow, but the new family had painted it white. It looked wrong with the new color, out of place."
While Myron's still trying to come to terms with these upheavals, who should drop by but Emily, an old girlfriend and college sweetie, a woman with, as Myron succinctly puts it, "too much history." She left Myron long ago to marry his longtime nemesis, basketball superstar Greg Downing, the man who indirectly ruined Myron's chances at playing pro ball. But now she's back... and she's about to crush Myron's world "like a ripe tomato under a stiletto heel."
It seems Emily has a 13-year old son, Jeremy, who's in dire need of a bone marrow transplant. Turns out there actually is a match listed on the bone marrow registry list, but the donor has mysteriously disappeared. She asks, and then begs, Myron to find him, but our hero isn't so easily convinced. So she plays her trump card and it's a doozy: Greg Downing isn't actually the boy's biological father, she says, Myron is -- the result of one last torrid fling on the night before she got married.
That changes the odds considerably and so Myron makes like a private investigator once again. Only this time the investigation is more private and more personal than ever. Fortunately, he doesn't have to do all the work alone. He gets by with a little help from his friends.
In a character-driven series such as this, it all depends on the characters, and Coben delivers in spades. Esperanza Diaz, an "overly attractive bisexual" and former pro wrestler, is Myron's overly protective assistant and partner at MB SportsReps. She's also a computer whiz who acts as his sounding board and moral conscience, constantly urging him to do the right thing, like a cartoon angel riding his shoulder.
More interesting still is Win, the little cartoon devil who's taken up residence on Myron's opposite shoulder. He's a charmingly sociopathic financial whiz who has been Myron's best bud ever since their roommate days at Duke University. Win? That's short for Windsor Horne Lockwood III and he's about as WASPy as they come. Imagine Niles Crane from TV's Frasier with a high-powered rifle and no scruples about using it. Often.
Win is a piece of work, all right. A devout student of both the martial arts and Zen, he meditates to the soundtracks of cheesy porn flicks from the 70s and homemade videos of himself with "a potpourri of females in the throes of passion." As Myron's current flame remarks, "On the outside, [Win is] all cold and detached.... But underneath all that, he's all cold and detached." Greg Downing refers to him less charitably as "that violent whacko."
With the help of Win and Esperanza -- plus occasional assists from Big Cyndi, Esperanza's 300-pound former tag-team partner, and Zorra, a onetime Israeli Mossad agent and current cross-dresser -- Myron sets out to track down the mysterious potential bone marrow donor. He soon finds himself butting heads with a powerful but obsessively private family, as well as a disgraced journalist with a few nasty secrets of his own. It seems other people have pasts, too, and theirs don't consist of a comfortable suburban upbringing, but of missing children, broken families, ruined careers and a possible serial killer. And even as Myron plows deeper and deeper into this sordid mess, it's not clear what, if anything, these people have to do with the man who might be able to save Jeremy's life.
The game changes directions, though, when Jeremy is kidnapped and Myron at last gets to do what he does best: negotiate. As the narrator, whoever the hell he is, opines, "Life is [like] being a sports agent -- constant negotiating."
In such an emotionally manipulative book (Coben, like Emily, turns out to be a bit of a master at it), with fathers and sons struggling to figure out their roles, there're bound to be a few touching moments. And the author doesn't cheat us.
As he hugs his dad one night, Myron "again noticed that his father felt smaller, less substantial. Myron held on a little longer than usual. For the first time he felt like the bigger man, the stronger man, and he suddenly remembered what Dad had said about reversing roles. So he held on in the dark. Time passed. Dad patted his back. Myron kept his eyes closed and held on tighter. Dad stroked his hair and shushed him. Just for a little while. Just until the roles reversed themselves again, returning both of them to where they belonged."
Despite its bouts of humor, both broad and subtle, and its touching Kodak moments, this novel was a lot darker than I expected. Death and violence are constant refrains, foreshadowed by a rather gloomy view of New York City: this is where John Lennon bled to death, over there is where Malcolm X was shot, that sort of thing. And questions of mortality are raised. As Lawrence Block put it in the title of one of his recent books, "Everybody Dies." And that includes Myron's father. Myron's son. Myron.
For these are the real themes at the heart of Darkest Fear: not just mortality, but the sometimes fragile bond between fathers and sons. How can you hold on and how can you let go? What makes a father? What makes a son? How far do you go to save your own child? And what happens to the rules that have defined your life when the stakes get so high? How do you negotiate your way out of situations like these?
All tough questions -- ones that Harlan Coben, himself a parent (he lives in New Jersey with his wife and their three kids, all under the age of 5), might ask. You think I'm off base here, maybe projecting a little too much? Think again. The book's dedication reads: "This one is for your father. And mine." No kidding.
I do have a few quibbles with the novel, though, the biggest one being this: Who is narrating the story? Everyone tells me that Coben is a funny guy. No argument there. But sometimes it's not too clear whether Myron Bolitar is funny, too. Why, oh why, did Coben write this book in the third person? Or does Myron actually refer to himself in the third person? That would be an even more annoying thought. Are we to assume that those drop-dead witticisms are courtesy of some anonymous, omniscient smart-ass narrator? Giving this faceless narrator guy all the best lines sometimes makes him more interesting than Myron and it leads you to wonder who he is. The results often seem removed, even a little off-putting.
Worse, sometimes Coben overdoes the snappy remarks:
Myron mixed childlike Froot Loops and very adult All-Bran into a bowl and poured on skim milk. For those not reading the Cliffs Notes, this act denotes that there is still a great deal of boy in the man. Heavy symbolism. How poignant.
I mean, sheesh, Coben, we got it already. Somebody blow a whistle on that one.
There are a few other problems here. As previously mentioned, it took me a while to suss out the backstory in Darkest Fear. I also felt the tale ran on a bit (the ending particularly). And, sure, Coben does jerk us around on occasion. But the fact remains that this book was a real blast and I'm now planning to head back and read all the others in order, so I don't miss a thing.
Coben has written six previous novels featuring Myron Bolitar, including the Edgar and Shamus-winning Fade Away (1996) and last year's The Final Detail. His deceptively simple, even graceful prose; his tongue-in-cheek approach, even when it's a defense mechanism; his off-the-wall but always human characters -- it all just feels right and comfortable, like slipping on a beloved old pair of running shoes. Better yet, the author has something to say.
As the sports pages would put it, this guy Coben plays with a lot of heart. | August 2000