Book Reviews

November 26, 1999:


by Matthew F. Jones

BloomsburyUSA, 304 pp., $23.95

Rounding a corner on a rural mountain road, Nat Banyon comes upon Homer Finch, whose Cadillac has just hit a fox and skidded off the road. Nat gives him a ride to the small, dowdy Deepwater Motel, which Finch owns and runs with his wife Iris. Nat accepts a job repainting the upstate New York motor lodge -- harmless enough -- but he soon finds portents in everything and everyone he encounters at the otherwise unremarkable lakeside inn.

So begins Deepwater, the psycho-thriller by Matthew F. Jones, who was roundly praised for his 1996 effort A Single Shot, which also invokes the profound and irreversible effects a single, seemingly chance incident can have on a person's life. In Deepwater, the car accident leads Nat to Homer Finch, whose affable appearance masks an abiding mean streak and an obsession with controlling everyone in his world through fair means or foul. Homer challenges Nat to a boxing match, and everything about the challenge -- the boxing gear, photos of Finch in a boxing ring, the wagering -- gives Nat a deluxe case of the creeps. But why?

This novel wants to be a pulp noir thriller. The plot celebrates the genre's stereotypes: Nat is a lone man running from some unnamed and perhaps unnameable thing. He has barely been at the Deepwater long enough for his Pontiac's engine to cool before he and his employer's sultry wife are feverishly knocking knees and plotting to escape from their dead-end lives. Jones probes Nat's psyche to paint a picture of his emotional and mental disorientation. Events and semi-hallucinations swirl and jumble until finally the fabric of reality is entirely threadbare and no longer holds even a single moment of the past in his memory. The sense of being haunted and hunted pervades the book even when there is no visible indication that Nat is threatened.

As befits a novel with noirish overtones, sexual tension is a strong catalyst for our young Nat and his every step and misstep at the Deepwater. Nat only agrees to box Homer because refusal would be analogous to giving up Iris. They meet when Homer's away, and the liaisons leave Nat in constant fear that Homer is wise to their affair. They finally conclude that they have two choices: run from Homer or kill him. Nat is a smoldering ball of dimwitted confusion -- miserably obsessed with another man's wife.

And the obsession is directed back at him.

Only death, real and imagined, is more pervasive than sex in Deepwater. It is a suffocating and omnipresent reality for Nat -- awake or asleep. But once again, he's entirely unable to explain or understand why. Dreams and hallucinations corrupt his mind. Lucid moments become fewer and farther between, but he's powerless to reverse the ongoing breakdown. He senses that there was a past when he was like everyone else, but he can't recall when or even why that could have been.

Deepwater is a harrowing and unsettling piece of fiction. It accomplishes the neat trick of fulfilling its literary aspirations without belying its affinity for (and its roots in) genre fiction. In its best moments, it dissolves the boundaries between present and past, memory and prediction, doing and dreaming. Uneven, but inescapably chilling, it is the dark shadowy figure that lives on the other side of magical realism.

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