This fever dream begins on a stormy fall night at a lake house in the north woods of Minnesota, where we are introduced to a college professor who a few years earlier had written a novel in which he justified a gruesome campus murder under the nihilistic theory that there is no right or wrong, no moral center to man's activity. The writer returns to the lake house where he had spent his childhood summers and locks himself in the attic, intent on writing the final story of his life. Playing on a continuous loop in his mind are key moments in his past: his childhood in small–town Iowa, where he and his best friend befriended a local drifter; his childhood on the lake where one summer a local boy drowned in a storm; and the central fixation of his erotic meeting with a girl on a train bound for Chicago when he was just fifteen. All of these threads weave together as the writer tries to piece together the multitude of secrets and acts of violence that make up one human life.
Reminiscent of the work of noir master Derek Raymond and John Banville's The Sea with a touch of David Lynch, The Joy of Killing, with its haunting language and vivid images, is both a fascinating look into the fugue state of one man's mind as well as a searing, philosophical look at violence and its impact on our human condition. With its elegant structure, multiple storylines, and edge–of–your–seat suspense, the novel is the tour–de–force fiction debut by one of America's premier writers of true crime.
Related collections and offers
|Sold by:||Penguin Random House Publisher Services|
|File size:||542 KB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The story begins in the middle of my fifteenth year on this earth. It was a mid-December evening in 1958, and I was returning home for Christmas from an eastern prep school, where I had been sent a year earlier in response to what a school psychologist referred to as "serious behavioral problems." I arrived in Grand Central Station on a train from the western hills of Massachusetts in the late morning. From there I would catch a train to Chicago, and from there another one to Des Moines, Iowa, where my parents would pick me up for the drive to Booneville.
In a fading light and cold wind, suitcase in hand, I tramped down the long walk to the last car and climbed the metal steps. I figured on settling in a window seat, lighting a weed, and checking out the sights as the train pulled out of the big city. Once rolling, I would walk up to the club car and see if I could talk the bartender into selling me a beer. I stopped at an empty row of seats and tossed my suitcase in the overhead rack. Across the aisle sat a girl, blonde, wearing a blue pleated skirt and dark sweater. Her face was turned away, but her bare legs lay sideways on the seat. The suitcase bumped down from the rack and knocked me on the shoulder. I thought I heard a muffled giggle from her direction. I jammed the suitcase back onto the rack, slipped out of my sports coat, loosened my tie, and sat down on the aisle seat.
The overhead lights threw a soft glare over the scene. People continued to climb aboard and bump their way down the aisle. I felt in my jacket pocket for the pack of Luckies I had bought at a newsstand in the station, along with a girlie magazine, and tore off the red stripe around the top edge. I extricated a weed from the pack and whacked it on the back of my Zippo. The train lurched forward, stopped; lurched again, stopped; then began creeping up the tracks, tilting suddenly to the left, and then to the right, like a wounded buffalo. I flipped open the Zippo with my thumb. I felt someone's eyes on me. I glanced across the aisle and saw the girl's face in the window. She brushed strands of hair from her face, while sliding her half-exposed legs from the seat and onto the floor. I snapped the Zippo shut.
She turned to face me. The corners of her pretty eyes were slightly downturned. Her lips were in a faint pout. Blonde hair tumbled to her shoulders. I tapped the cigarette on the lighter again. She spoke:
"Where are you going?"
I hesitated: I was not good with girls, particularly ones this pretty. She shifted slightly in her seat, revealing even more, whiter thigh. The conductor arrived, stopped between us.
I handed him mine. He stuck the stub in a clip on the overhead rack, his narrow blue-coated body blocking my view across the aisle. "Chicago," he said, and placed a stub in the clip above the girl, and then moved on. Her skirt was now tucked under her legs. The clickety-clack of the wheels grew louder.
"Chicago. I mean Des Moines. And then Booneville."
"I can barely hear you," she said. "Why don't you come over and sit with me? It's a long trip." She patted the seat next to her.
I stuffed the Luckies in my shirt pocket and lay the weed and Zippo on top of the girlie magazine on the inside seat. I rose and stepped into the aisle. She removed her hand and seemed to guide me into the seat with her eyes. I sat slightly turned, as she was, and struggled to keep my eyes from dropping to her thighs, which seemed even whiter up close. Before I could say anything, she spoke.
"You're a preppie, aren't you?"
"I go to a girls' school in Connecticut."
I held out my hand to introduce myself. She touched my arm lightly before I could speak.
"All those dark cold months without anyone to hold you, or make out with."
"We had dances with girls' schools," I said.
"God, they were terrible," she said. "I went to one dance. My date was the fullback on the St. Mark's football team. I never went again."
"You're pretty," I said. "I'm sure the boys wanted to dance with you."
She smiled. Her eyes held onto mine.
"It's going to be a long night," she said as she brushed back a blonde lock. She tilted her chin up a little. "Would you like to kiss me?"
I was stunned. After a moment, her eyes fluttered closed and her chin tilted up a little more. I leaned forward awkwardly. Her hand tucked under my chin and brought me in slowly, almost furtively, until our lips touched. Her tongue pressed between my teeth. I kissed her back, and she opened her mouth wider. She lay her hand on mine, lifted it slowly in the air, into the small space between us. I wanted to open my eyes, but before the clouds in my mind could clear my hand came to rest lightly on her breast, like a bird on a bush.
Sitting here, now, some forty years later, at the wooden table, tapping out these words on the Underwood in the soft light of a tall gooseneck lamp, not immune to the starlit sky out the window, nor the sounds and shadows of the rustling branches on the tall oak, I accept that the way I tell the story of that night on the train might not be the way it actually happened, in specific detail, in exact rhythm and tone and sequence; this version has received a little lacquer here and there as life piled up on it; to simplify it or make it feel better or cleaner, a few facts have possibly been dropped out or slipped in; perhaps even a few images have been recolored or restored to a brightness they never had. That's what time and the mind do, for better or worse, and only a fool would deny it. Through the window I can see the purple black between the stars, and the moon rising in the corner, and I think this night, as that one, can't last; the black will begin to fade slowly to gray, and the morning light will bring with it the end.
Perhaps it would be best to leave the story alone, to let the reel run in my head, unshared, until the very last frame, by which time I would probably appreciate it more, with time growing short, and some considerable ground left to cover, although I've already begun editing much of it out in my head. As the night has grown darker and the stars brighter I've considered letting go of these final pages altogether, drifting through it all, without direction, letting the past overflow the present until it is the present; there will be no sensation of coming loss, because everything has already happened, and the first glimmer of light in the distant sky beyond the walls will be like a moment of grace, into which I can move once and for all, perhaps into a final moment of undisturbed harmony.
I trust that the feelings of despair from unknowing will soon be gone, to be replaced by unwavering clarity, which may indeed bring its own form of despair, welcome only because of the absence of confusion, which is all I've ever asked for.
My breath caught. At home, if you went steady with a girl, you might be able to feel her up, and after several months you might get inside her blouse, and if you hung in long enough to be "serious" you might get to feel her bare flesh, but it was a long and arduous process. It was certainly never the girl's idea. It occurred to me that I might be dreaming. Or that it might be some sort of a setup.
Her tongue darted around in my mouth like a butterfly, and my fingers responded by squeezing her breast. She turned slightly in the seat, to face me. I shifted to release my right hand, which was caught between my hip and the seat. It rose in the air and settled lightly on her left breast. Both hands now pressed in. A soft sound rose from the girl's throat, which I took as encouragement. When my fingers found a nub of flesh, I tugged on it gently, and it stiffened. My dick bent hard against my zipper. I gave both nipples a twist and felt a tremble in her body.
A child screamed from somewhere in the back of the car. A loud crack and a whoosh of air blew in from the front. I saw a shadow moving slowly up the aisle. The conductor. Coming this way. The door hissed and shut and the loud clicking-clacking faded. The form stopped beside us, the round hat with a gold badge blocking a circle of dim light. I could see through his wireless spectacles professional, unfriendly eyes, which came to rest on me. A scrawny finger pushed the spectacles up his nose. I waited for him to say something, but instead his eyes shifted away and up to the rack across the aisle, over my seat. He reached up and flicked my stub from the clip and turned and placed it in the clip over us, next to the girl's. He moved on, rolling with the sway of the train, like a sailor on a ship.
The light in the car now seemed a murky yellow, except for a sharp reading light on at the very front, and the only sound was a soft snoring somewhere behind us.
"I guess you're stuck here, with me," the girl said.
My hands rise from the typewriter and settle onto my lap. I look at the scene more closely, at the man standing in the aisle, the conductor, and I notice his gold watch chain traversing his blue vest, from west to east, like a river of gold, and I think perhaps I've added it in, this small glitter. Was it really there? It doesn't matter, and I've long since lost the ability to sort out those things, what is true or not, or what is real or not. If something happened or not. I've painted in the gold chain on the blue expanse, and there it will be, there it will stay, and if I were to view the scene again, it will appear as always having been there. Sitting here now, I believe that to be the truth. Simply because things become more apparent over time doesn't mean they weren't always there. You just didn't see them. Perhaps I've added the spectacles along the line, and the ticket punch in his hand. But not the girl. Not the girl. She lived that night with me on the train, and she loved me, for those few hours at least, and she has provided me with great sustenance and solace over the years. To see her now, to hold her face in my hands, feel the heat, to march through the garden and into the water with her in my heart would be my final desire, and why I am writing now, to etch her into my brain so that even faltering steps or timorous fear can't erase her. If anyone examined my brain, they would think as they watched the scene, what a lucky boy he is, the way he just stumbled into this play, and, really, he handled it fairly well, for the little that he knew, and he must have gone on to great things, with women and otherwise, so smooth he seemed, and they would be amused at the scene with the conductor, and find themselves erotically pulsed by the drama.
In some ways, I prefer that boy to the man sitting here at the wooden desk, in the small room at the very top of the stairs, looking out into the sky and the dark clouds sailing over the water, pondering and preparing, which is why I bring him back, bring them both back, for times like this. It's how I've stayed reasonably sane over the years; for I am able sometimes to freeze a single frame of that journey in my consciousness, and let it be all there is.
I work on the narrative of that night, clicking and clacking, picking and pecking, watching the words float on and off the page, remaining sufficiently present to finish the story. To achieve some elusive sense of completion, and, as well, something to stand as my last will and testament.
The door at the front of the car closed behind the conductor. The light seemed to dim. I turned to the girl with some apprehension, but she was smiling seductively at me. As soon as all was still, her hand tugged gently on the bottom of her sweater. Then her fingers disappeared. Paused, twisted, rose, paused, twisted. She was undoing the buttons on her blouse. Her tongue caressed her top lip, as if to make absolutely clear to me what was happening, and her eyes radiated like lures for the hare on the edge of the forest. Unsure of what to do or say, I could only watch. Her hand reappeared and rested on her lap. She tilted her head, and I leaned in to kiss her, and this time she was quite gentle. She opened her eyes, slightly glazed, and in an easy, whispery voice I would remember the rest of my days said, "They're yours."
I felt a little strange, perhaps because it was me she was offering her breasts to, or perhaps it was her boldness. I glanced about the car, then looked closely at the protrusions of her dark sweater. Hesitate any longer and she might change her mind, I told myself. My left hand rose and nudged its way under the sweater. One finger and then two slipped under the edge of the blouse, touched the unseen flesh, brushed over her ribs. The fingers spread open a fraction and began slipping upward, until the tips reached the place where the thin flesh over the bones turned to substance, strangely firm and spongy. No bra. My hand trembled. Her fingers touched my cheek. My thumb slid around until her breast was caught in the semicircle of my thumb and forefinger. I squeezed ever so slightly and felt the mound rise. My heart clenched — this was happening, the girl, her breast, my hand, and God only knew where it was leading, although I knew where I hoped it would. The nipple. My hand moved up a little further until the second and third fingers were also touching it. Finally I believed her: I could do with them as I pleased. A flush of blood hit my groin.
I caught the sweaty perfume, and I kissed her neck and tasted a flowery bitterness. My thumb pressed down on the nipple, and it disappeared in the mound, only to spring back, harder, like a pencil eraser. Her back arched slightly, and the nipple bumped into my thumb. I pinched it gently, and she pushed up a little more. I gave it a twist, and she murmured something in my ear. I felt her other hand on my neck, pulling me in closer, and sensed the desperation in her. She whispered again: "Please." My dick pushed so hard into my zipper it hurt. My hand spread wide, thumb moving across the space to touch the other nipple, my little finger still pressing into the first one. I tugged them both gently. Her lips were against my ear. I felt the heat of her whisper.
Damn. I always thought nipples were delicate. I twisted one, then the other. I pinched the very tip of it, and, hearing, feeling nothing, pinched it even harder. Her chest shook, and I heard the same word again, so I pressed in harder until my nails met each other through the flesh. Her body froze in position, her breath released, and strange, foreign sounds came from her. A shiver went through her body. A low moan brushed my ear.
I rock my chair back, close my eyes, and think that with the clarity and finite complexity of the images that come into my mind, unbidden or otherwise, I should have been a painter, because there was little else I could do with them; the images came and went as they pleased, often to my delight or amusement, but often otherwise, to my distraction or distress. There was the time in my early thirties when I met Shelley Duvall at a reception for the film festival in Des Moines. As we were talking, I became quite taken with her long, white neck, graceful as a swan's, and suddenly from ear to ear a thin red line edged across the middle of it, half an inch above the clavicle, as if someone had just flicked the tip of a straight razor through the flesh. She kept on talking, unaware of the cut, so precise was it, until tiny red drops appeared just below the line, and her head began to wobble a little, and still she kept on smiling and chatting. I could not bear to watch her head tilt like that, fearing it would eventually topple off, and as the red drops began to slide down the slender neck I disengaged — her hand was resting lightly on my forearm, and had been for at least a minute, which in these sorts of things is a long time — mumbling something lame and turning to walk away, leaving her hand still poised in the air where my forearm had been, a smile freezing on her slightly surprised face.
I haven't seen that image in awhile. As sharp and bright as the day it was born, if not sharper, and almost as frightening, in its red and white, Valentine's Day cleaved beauty. I feel a twinge of annoyance. The image of Shelley in red skews me off track and reminds me of how little influence I have over the stuff in my head, and how I have often felt the intrusions only as a burden, only recently beginning to see it — this story, the one of the girl on the train — as a path to freedom. I glance at the keys on the typewriter, and then at my fingers, as if willing them to rise and tap out something perceptive or perhaps enlightening. I hear strange sounds from the floor below, like a toy rattle being shaken back and forth. And then it stops. This morning I searched every room in the four-story house — it's an old place with lots of out-of-the-way crooks and nooks — and as darkness grew close I bolted the doors one by one and ascended the flights to the small room at the top, with a window overlooking the lovely garden and the high stone wall and the lake beyond. The moon, I notice, seems stuck in the lower right corner of the
window. I lean a little to my left and see that it's caught between two limbs in the tall oak, whose great branches arch out like veins in the sky. Images, you see, can mutate with time or remain as crystal clear as the instant they were born. Shelley doesn't particularly bother me, mainly because she's fixed and her head no longer wobbles, but there are thousands of others, if not thousands of thousands, some seen some not seen, that arrive and depart as they please, and you can either adjust and weave them into whatever else is going on in your reality or disengage yourself from them — no easy task, I assure you — or if you can do neither, pray that they dissipate in some harmless way that doesn't leave you stranded. Many of them, it seems, involve either sex or violence, or sex and violence. I should say that the night of the reception I ended up having sex with Shelley. I came just as the thin red line across her neck split open. The image of the girl on the train is, as I said, really a hundred thousand images, or more, and sometimes I can stop the progression where I please, and start it again with the flick of an eyelash, and each time there is something new, a taste, a look; the light in the train might be more yellow-diffused than in the past, or it dims occasionally as the train rocks from the edge of one wheel to the edge of the other. The passing lights of the farmhouses and crossings and occasional highway cars streak together into a blur against the black outside. I doubt I saw much of anything that night, so consumed was I by my other senses: the creaking footfalls of the conductor as he makes his way up and down the aisle, the smell of garlic from the dinner basket of an elderly couple up ahead, the insistent rhythm of the clacking of the wheels, and the stale, cigarette-stained air that ripples when someone opens one of the doors, (when the clacking is so loud you don't notice the fresh air until the door crashes shut) and the varied smells of human beings in some sort of repose after their efforts at living another day have come to an end.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Joy of Killing"
Copyright © 2015 Harry N. MacLean.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
WILLIE OR THE UNDERWOOD,