July 07, 2016
(++++) AS HARD-BOILED AS THEY COME
The Perdition Score: A Sandman Slim Novel. By Richard Kadrey. Harper Voyager. $25.99.
Richard Kadrey writes so well, with such irrepressible delight in profanity and unspeakable descriptions of unspeakable creatures and events, that it is tempting to read his series of Sandman Slim novels for the verbiage alone. In fact, that is often a good idea, since the plots, although intricate, are mostly about James Stark (aka Sandman Slim) smashing things, smashing into things, being smashed by things, getting ready to smash things, or thinking about smashing things. Not too much of that last one, actually, since, as Stark says in The Perdition Score, “This means I have to think and be patient, my two least favorite things.”
Fans of the character and of Kadrey will be happy to know that there is less thinking and waiting about in this eighth series entry than in the previous one, Killing Pretty, whose ingratiating title (or what passes for ingratiating in Kadrey’s writing) belied a more-static-than-usual plot. Kadrey and Stark are back on the move in The Perdition Score, a little ditty that takes up the matter of a hyper-evil organization called Wormwood that has its tentacles (not all of them figurative) into all sorts of matters living and dead, using people and other things that are living and dead or maybe a little of both. Pursuing Wormwood involves Stark with demons (good and bad), angels (good and bad), a weird substance called “black milk” (good and bad, bringing miraculous healing or death), and various hangers-on in his immediate vicinity (good and bad). It also involves kidnapped kids, the current Angel of Death (someone killed the last one), and a whole lot of description of Los Angeles and its environs and Hell (aka Downtown) and its environs. L.A. example: “When I was dragged Downtown, Silver Lake was still thrift shops, dingy little corner groceries, working-class bars, people cooking on hot plates in garages, and low-level dope dealers. Now it’s Wi-Fi-enabled omelets and gluten-free Vespas.” Downtown example, with the understanding that Downtown is a lot like L.A.: “Griffith Park back in the world is a lot of brittle scrub, annoying bushes, and thirsty trees covering what’s essentially a big rock hemorrhoid looming over Hollywood. …Maybe even sixty years ago some vestiges of golden-age glamour still clung to the place, but even then it was less like romance and more like a particularly enchanting strain of tuberculosis. …Of course, Hellion Griffith Park doesn’t have the same stupid trees and irritating bushes as regular Griffith Park. No, this park is more twisted, vicious, and thorny than Sleeping Beauty’s bastard castle. There are bushes with poisonous berries that burst if you make the slightest contact. Black, twisted trees drop rotten fruit full of venomous centipedes the size of dachshunds.” And so on.
These marvelously pointed descriptive passages are the greatest pleasure of reading The Perdition Score and a number of the other Sandman Slim books. Just when you think Kadrey cannot possibly get any pithier or Stark any more bitter, out comes: “The gathering is exactly what I was afraid of. A CIA torture session of wine, cheese, and tony chitchat. Maybe eating Brie just makes people stupid. I never trusted the stuff myself. Soft cheese is a reminder that all cheese is just milk that crawled into a ditch to die, then some lunatic came along, spread the corpse on a saltine, and invented hors d’oeuvres. Now people pay heroin prices for stuff they could make themselves if they only had the guts to strap a pint of whole milk to their engine blocks for a few days. Sure it might come out a little greasy, but that’ll just shoot the stuff through your system faster. No need to absorb any actual calories. This is L.A., where the food is prettier than the movie stars and twice as untouchable.” Or: “I want to find the fault line that will drop California into the ocean and toss a nuke down there. No one on this boat, me included, will benefit the human race by living one more day. Let’s just blow the whole shebang into the Pacific and give Nevada a shot at some prime beachfront property.”
And these are merely asides, short passages largely unconnected to the actual action and activity of The Perdition Score, which contains plenty of derring-do and a fair amount of derring-don’t. And there are plenty of other asides, such as, “If I didn’t know better I’d swear there was no God. But I do know better and the worst I can truly say is that I wish he was better at his job.”
This being a Hollywood novel and a Sandman Slim book, there are of course lots of movie references in it. One character tells Stark to keep an eye on some people through video cameras: “All you have to do is watch the show. I know you like movies. Pretend it’s My Dinner with André or something.” And Stark inevitably replies, “I prefer A Fistful of Dollars, but I get your drift.” Or, early in the book, a bartender notices how tense Stark constantly is and says, “Your problem is you’re all Koyaanisqatsi. You remember that movie.” Of course Stark does – “a hippie music video ninety minutes too long.” And when the bartender says the whole film is only 90 minutes long, Stark replies, in his best, laconic Clint Eastwood style, “Yep.” But Kadrey takes Stark and the other characters beyond movie criticism into existential weirdness of all types. Consider the following toast offered by one of Stark’s friends, followed by Stark’s reply:
“May you fly, walk, swim, or crawl for all eternity under the noses of our betters.”
“And if you can’t, at least get your own reality show. Sasquatch Hoarders. Or The Real Housewives of R’lyeh.”
Yes, it helps to know your H.P. Lovecraft to get some of the references here, and it helps to have a very dark sense of humor, albeit not necessarily one as dark as Kadrey’s (hard to imagine having one like that). And yet ultimately, there is a peculiarly humane side to Stark, if not quite a human one (he is only half human, the other half being angelic, for all the good it usually does him). Less than halfway through The Perdition Score, Stark, who, as usual, narrates the story, subjects readers to a moment of what passes for introspection with him: “I wonder what’s a stranger life, fighting monsters or trying to figure out how people work? One is a lot more dangerous than the other and it sure as hell isn’t monsters.” And that pretty much encapsulates not only Stark’s thinking and Kadrey’s but also the appeal of The Perdition Score in particular and the ongoing fascination of the Sandman Slim series in general