Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Love, Drugs, and Indie Rock

Claire Dewitt and the Bohemian Highway
Sara Gran
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Anthony Vacca's review: 4.5 out 5 stars
First and foremost, a shout-out to the good people over at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt who did me a kindness and let me read this book a month in advance of publication, so that I in turn would, you know, write this review you are now allegedly reading. I can’t say if they are gonna be happy with the result of their trust (folly), but now it's too late for them to stop me.

 Ladies and germs, welcome to my review of Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway.
This is a sequel to Sara Gran’s first entry in her series—a series that she promises will be no longer than three books, as in a trilogy, as in this is the next to last book in the series, as in you need to read the first book before this one if you really want to enjoy all the joys there are to be had in this book, as in you really needed me to expound on that point, as in I love having complete control of this review and making this sentence so unnecessarily long with its very loose use of correct punctuation—and that first entry I was talking about, by the way—before my digression from the very simple task of finishing one lousy prepositional phrase (which this in turn is also effectively doing)—is the wonderful hard-boiled gem of a book Claire De Witt and the City of the Dead.

 In the first book we met the eccentric but dangerous Claire DeWitt, one of the world’s greatest detectives. Her unusual methods for solving mysteries comes from her devotion to a nearly mystical book called Détection which was penned by an illustrious French private detective before his slip into the bitterness and despair that claimed the last years of his life. Oh, and Claire did a whole lot of drugs, which seemed to help, I guess. It certainly made it easier for her to make surreal dream-like associations between the different clues that came her way and that actually produced results.

 But Claire’s substance abuse served a much greater purpose than making the book just stand out as edgy or what have you, and this is because Sara Gran understands exactly the profound personal effect a first-person private detective novel can carry. In City of the Dead we were given quick glimpses into Claire’s personal life, before she temporarily but effectively stuffed the cracks full with drugs and alcohol. And what we saw was a woman with a deep well of sorrow, built brick by brick with self-loathing.

And in The Bohemian Highway we start really getting our chance to climb down that well and see how lonely and miserable a person Claire is when she is not at work on a case. The trouble here for Claire is that her case this time is inescapably personal.

Paul Casablancas was a fairly successful musician living in San Francisco. He and his wife, Lydia, who is also a talented musician, were local celebrities in the indie music scene and punk-rock circles. They were the end-all-be-all cool kids couple. But then someone broke into their ridiculously expensive house one night and shot Paul dead. The police are thinking it must have been some kind of robbery gone sour on account of the five guitars missing from Paul’s personal collection. But Claire has a hard time believing that because Claire has a hard time believing anything when it comes to this murder, especially that the world is now a place where Paul Casablancas no longer exists. The thing of it is, Paul is the only person Claire was really ever truly in love with.
So Claire decides that she is going to figure out what really happened to Paul. And she is also going to start doing a shit-ton of cocaine so she doesn’t have to think about herself thinking about Paul. The second of these two activities is very telling in regards to the first. Claire has no illusions about justice; she knows that finding Paul’s killer will do nothing to bring Paul back, or make up for any of the mistakes she assures herself she is guilty of having committed. The most important crime of all being that she wouldn’t let herself open up to Paul or any other human being for that matter.

This is the groundwork for one of the more impressive aspects of this novel: as in any good private detective mystery, Claire has to do a lot of footwork and talk to a lot of people. Every person she questions—all the devastated friends, band mates, past lovers—all feel the loss of Paul in their own humanly impossible to understand ways; which is to say that no one can ever know exactly how much loss fucking hurts another person. But Claire is determined to feed off their emotions in attempt to keep her rotting memories and feelings towards Paul resembling something like life.

And as the case seems to proceed no further along towards any kind of revelation, Claire begins to ruminate on a particular missing person case she worked as a teenager in New York City. These recollections serve a two-fold purpose. One, it acts as a sub-plot that intersects the chapters of the main narrative; and Two, the memories allow Claire to wallow in even more misery due to the fact that this missing person case was one of the last times she ever saw her best friend Tracy. Tracy’s disappearance was a case Claire never solved and further compounded her extreme sense of abandonment and self-loathing. And as we watch Claire in the present continually abusing her body with cocaine at an alarming rate, these scenes of a younger and more naïve Claire help to create the overwhelming sense of loss that permeates throughout every page of this book.

These two plot threads come to powerful and emotionally-energized conclusions that, for this sad bastard of a reader, left an ache in that thing we all call our heart. And as this book reaches its final pages, Gran makes her only misstep for me. She ends the book with a cliff-hanger that seems pretty non-sequitur even for a novel that is dreamy and ethereal as much as it is nasty and vicious. I am no fan of cliff-hangers stuck on the end of a book just for the sake of making you cough up the cash the next time a new book comes around. So even though this one fault kept me from making this a 100 % rabid rave review, I still found Claire De Witt and the Bohemian Highway a fantastic read for fans of mysteries as well as good-old fashioned literature. Sara Gran packs her pages with quirky and painful insights about love and trying to reach out to other people that kept me highlighting the electronic pages of my ARC again and again. And yeah, I’ll definitely be waiting to see how things turn out in a year or two when Claire makes her curtain-call in the third book in this trilogy.
Or maybe, hopefully, Claire will be back for more and more. She’s a great character and one of my favorite private detectives. So here’s for me holding out in my belief that all writers are liars. And they’re the worst kind of liars, too. They make you believe them every time.

So let me steal an idea from my friend Dan, and give this review 4 out of 5 happy stars with one cocaine-bloodied nose of a half-star passed out at the end.

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