by Jason Starr
Published by Four Walls Eight Windows
256 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Perceptions and Deceptions
Reviewed by Jack Curtin
Jason Starr is a New York writer whose first two novels were originally issued in England by that country's leading publisher of crime and noir fiction. He justifies that pedigree in the second of those works, Nothing Personal. Its story takes four not very likable people and makes us care -- if not about the characters themselves, then at least about their eventual fates as their intertwined lives suddenly come apart, their personal failings erupting into acts of unadulterated evil.
This is no small achievement, especially since Starr tells his tale in a straightforward and often bland fashion that never quite achieves the tension the story should develop. This stylistic weakness, however, is offset by a certain level of dark humor that characterizes his storytelling. It's also offset by Starr's deft touch for twisting and turning his plot in directions which, if not entirely unexpected, still lead to an ending that most readers wouldn't anticipate.
Nothing Personal is told from multiple viewpoints. Early chapters focus mostly on Joey DePino, an inveterate gambler who is over his head in debt to bookmakers and loan sharks and sinking fast, and David Sussman, a successful advertising executive in Manhattan who's increasingly aware of his own mortality and terrified that his mistress, an office colleague, will destroy his marriage and life rather than allow him to end their affair. These two men are connected through their wives, best friends since grade school, who have maintained their close relationship even though Maureen and Joey DePino live near the poverty level in a small, rundown apartment and Leslie and David Sussman reside comfortably in a chic Upper East Side apartment with their beloved 10-year-old daughter, Jessica.
As is usually the case in real life, and almost always the case in novels of crime and suspense, these four individuals have completely erroneous perceptions of one another, which is made evident to us when they get together for dinner. Joey, who has just lost his job (and, while he doesn't know it yet, is only hours away from a severe beating by a couple of goons sent to collect the money he owes), thinks David is a spoiled rich guy who has it made, with a cushy job and a sexy blonde wife. Maureen, who has turned into a binge eater and is contemplating giving Joey an ultimatum -- Gamblers Anonymous or a divorce -- is envious of her friend and her handsome husband and is beginning to wonder if she hasn't married beneath herself.
On the other side, although David isn't particularly impressed with Joey, he at least sees him as a regular guy, free of any meaningful problems, with whom he can talk frankly about his illicit romance. And Leslie, who is anorexic and the veteran of at least two plastic surgeries, sees Maureen as the attractive one and thinks that her childhood friend would be better off dumping Joey and getting herself a better man.
Pretty standard character developments, even when they're revealed in Starr's often-amusing fashion. They make the reader wonder early on whether cover blurbs from the 1998 British paperback edition of Nothing Personal (London's Daily Telegraph said Starr was "at the cutting edge of the revival of classic American noir fiction") might not have been just a tad overstated.
Such doubts are not assuaged by the introduction into this story of David's mistress, Amy Lee. She, too, is dangerously close to being a figure straight out of Central Casting -- the obsessed, jilted lover who becomes a physical as well as psychological threat. Amy begins stalking Leslie, managing to run into her at a clothing store and later at the supermarket, where she pretends to be a psychic and tells the confused Leslie that her husband has a dark secret he is keeping from her. Amy then sends a blank cassette to the Sussman apartment and begins leaving messages on the couple's answering machine, all to warn David of what will happen if he does not leave Leslie for her. Worse yet, Amy carries a gun and has already used it once, in the aftermath of an attempted rape. (That shooting, introduced as a seeming bit of throwaway background early in the novel, will be used to striking effect in its conclusion -- a testament to Starr's aforementioned skill for developing unexpected plot twists.)
A more interesting personality who becomes involved in the lives of the DePinos and the Sussmans (and serves as this book's sixth viewpoint character) is Billy DiStefano, known to his friends as "Billy Balls." While his character also has antecedents in a slew of similar novels (Will he or won't he turn out to be a psychopath?), Billy nonetheless stands out among this cast of stereotypes and his arrival about midway through the story gives it some much-needed energy. An old classmate of Joey's, Billy was the coolest guy around and a highly successful womanizer -- until the night of their high-school graduation, when he and the best-looking girl in their class, Cindi Badamo, were involved in an automobile accident. "Rumor had it," writes Starr, "that Cindi was giving Billy head while he was driving, when somehow he lost control of the wheel going around a bend on Kings Highway and the car crashed into a tree. The back of Cindi's head hit the steering wheel, breaking her neck, and she died later that week in the hospital."
The crash left Billy in a two-week-long coma, after which he was a changed person, both physically and mentally. Now slower in mind and body, given to depression and temperamental outbursts, yet still driven by a need for sex, Billy is the one to whom Joey turns in desperation when he concocts a scheme to get out of debt: Billy will kidnap little Jessica Sussman and demand a ransom, with Joey and his friend splitting the money.
But no such tidy results are possible in this yarn. Instead, things go from bad to worse for all of its players. David tries every which way to fend off the aggressive Amy, but as it appears hopeless, he resigns himself to Leslie discovering the truth. Meanwhile, Leslie is more and more convinced that nobody -- least of all her husband -- can really love her. Urged on by her friend, Maureen is wracked with guilt after she has a wild, sexual fling with a man she meets in the hospital emergency room where she takes Joey after his beating. And Joey is increasingly worried about Billy, fearful that he'll go completely off the wall and end up putting both of them in prison. Finally, after David's desperate altercation with Amy transpires almost simultaneously with Billy's snatching of Jessica from school during a blizzard, some, but not all, of the characters' secrets are revealed.
As I said in the very first paragraph, I doubt that anyone could anticipate how everything works out here -- especially how each of the two situations (the kidnapping and the conflict between David and Amy) impacts the resolution of the other. In this story's last act, author Starr succeeds in taking the expected and refashioning it to surprising effect.
One thing remains to be said. Even though there are acts of violence in these pages, at story's end, Starr chooses merely to hint at the most appalling crime of all, allowing it to take place off stage. It is an inspired decision, which helps underscore this novel's revelations about the possibilities of human depravity and the disturbing truth that actions don't always have the proper consequences. | June 2000
Jack Curtin is a freelance writer based in the Philadelphia area.