After my reaction to “Limitless” and now this novel by Bill Pronzini, The Crimes of Jordan Wise (Walker & Company, 2006), I’m worried that I’m becoming a prissy moralist in my watching and reading tastes. Maybe it’s because the way this year is playing out, or maybe it’s because I’ve been a prissy moralist all along.
Jordan Wise, our first-person narrator, is a boring accountant in the 1970s who does something daring to impress his girlfriend: he embezzles over $600,000 from his firm, changes his identity to “Richard Laidlaw,” and moves to the Virgin Islands. He takes his girlfriend, Annalise, along, and they begin living the high life, residing in an expensive villa, playing handball and sailing with rich white folk, and taking trips abroad.
That’s, like, the first half of the book.
“Why the hell am I reading this?” I kept asking myself. Because a good friend recommended it? Well, yeah, that, and the book is short (just 231 pages), and the prose has a nice flow to it. And that’s my judgment of the overall writing: the word-for-word technique is very well done. No dialogue bugaboos, irritating grammar, or high-flown vocabulary to throw me out of the story. That’s no small feat in the writing world, because so many writers can’t do that.
No, my problem was with the story and the characters.
I kept waiting for the setup to end and the story to begin. We’ve read a dry, blow-by-blow account of how he executed crime number one and moved to the Virgins. They’re living the high life, and they don’t have any moral qualms about what they’ve done. Great! Where’s the story?
Oh, okay. Here it comes. Annalise just took off because Jordan/Richard just wants to work on his sailboat all the time and not kowtow to her every expensive whim. Now, she’s hooked up with some dude from New York who has come back to extort money from Jordan/Richard, so now Jordan/Richard has to murder him and hide his body in a French cemetery. That’s crime number two.
Again, no qualms on the narrator’s part. He just kills the guy and goes on with his life. Dum de dum.
But now here comes Annalise, and oh, watch out! She’s in full gold-digging mode. She doesn’t have any of the money left she stole from Jordan/Richard, and she wants to fuck her way back into his heart. Except he’s impotent now. Ha! Take that, you shallow bitch! And now here comes the doozy: Jordan/Richard just drugged your ass with valium and alcohol, and you’re dead! Wrapped in a spare sail, weighted, and on your way to the bottom of the ocean!
No qualms on the narrator’s part. Dum de dum. Oh, he says he has a moral code he follows, and he was just doing what he did in self defense. Okay, that part’s interesting: “I’m not a murderer!” he protests, sounding like the crazy person he is, but alas, the lunatic monologue is confined to a brief page or two, and we’re back to the dry recitation of how-I-did-this and how-I-did-that.
Well, there is one minor character arc, and if there’s any point to this book, then it would be here — that, by the end, Jordan/Wise is an alcoholic who’s lost all passion for life, who doesn’t like to sail anymore, who’s lost his best friend (because of suspicion regarding the final crime), and who’s impotent.
And did I mention that this is a frame story? Oh, yeah. This is all just one big tell-all to a writer who’s sitting in a bar with Jordan/Richard, preparatory to the release of a memoir before dying of alcoholism. Inexplicably, Jordan/Richard proclaims at the end, “It was worth it and I’d do it all again if I had the chance.”
Sigh. It’s a beautifully written story, as I said: the descriptions are lush and detailed, the prose flies off the page like champagne, smooth without being too heavy. But the story and its characters ultimately don’t have a soul, and neither does this book.
Maybe I feel this way because I’m a horror writer — or I’m a horror writer because I feel this way. I’m not religious, so I need my world view about the natural order to be reinforced by harsh, judgmental stories that not only delve into the darkest depths of human nature but which also affirm those things about life that make it worth living. Teach me something about life — show me despair, heroism, and triumph. Don’t give me a story that amounts to nothing more than a big shrug.