Onyx reviews: The Mystic
Arts of Erasing All signs of Death by Charlie Huston
Webster Fillmore Goodhue has never been a nice guy, according to Chev, his
best—perhaps his only—friend in the world, even before he suffered a traumatic
incident that left him depressed, lethargic, caustic and vulgar. He was,
however, cool and reliable, but it's going to take something pretty dramatic to get him back to
an approximation of the person he used to be.
Drama is what Huston provides, after a slow build-up that establishes who Web
is and why.
A former schoolteacher, Web is the son of a drug-addled hippy mother and a
once-famous screenwriter who authored many of the best scripts never produced
but who made a fortune rewriting some of the worst. Web isn't close with either
of them—he's not even very close to Chev any more. He's months behind on the
rent and his only saving grace is the fact the he keeps their apartment clean.
His mother can occasionally be relied on for an injection of cash, but because
of some bad blood involving Chev and Web's father, Web can't tap into his
father's considerable wealth.
People have been cutting Web a lot of slack because of what he went through,
but he's stretched their patience to the limit. When Po Sin offers him
employment with Clean Team, Chev makes it clear to Web that if he doesn't start
carrying his share of the load, their friendship will be over.
Clean Team is one of two rival trauma clean-up squads operating in Los
Angeles. Cleaning up the unspeakable messes after by suicides, homicides and
unattended deaths is a growth industry. It's not the kind of business that
advertises in the yellow pages or on television. Most of their customers come to
them from referrals by police officers.
It's not work for the queasy, either, and Huston doesn't flinch from the gory
details. Web's first job doesn't even involve a dead body, but it's plenty gross
all the same. Much to his surprise, Web discovers that this is his kind of job,
the sort of work he's designed to do.
On his second outing, he meets Soledad, the daughter of a suicide. Web
doesn't have people skills at the best of times, but his awkward and tactless
banter meshes well with Soledad's personality. When her perpetual screw-up of a
half-brother Jaime gets into an altercation with some shady business associates,
Soledad tracks Web down and asks him to help clean up the mess.
Which leads to another mess, and Web quickly finds himself in way over his
head. The rivalry between the two cleaning businesses escalates to felonious
levels, but that's the least of his worries when Soledad is kidnapped. To free
her, Web has to team up with Jaime in a caper that involves a container full of
almonds and numerous other smuggling endeavors.
The novel's title is a mouthful, but it reflects Web's multiple dilemmas. Not
all of the deaths he needs to clean up are in the present. One
of his new coworkers asks Web a pertinent question: why is it that death and the
messes associated with it don't bother him? Huston takes a while to answer that
question, but it's a rewarding answer and goes a long way toward explaining who
Web really is.
The dialog is terse, crisp, crude and realistic, though it's sometimes
difficult to discern who is speaking because Huston completely eschews dialog
tags. Once the book kicks into gear, the situations are often hilarious or
absurd, but Huston doesn't give readers a moment to worry about such matters.
Witnessing Web's journey from lethargy back to life is the reward for
withstanding some of the gruesome tableaus Huston creates.
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