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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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