Sunday, May 20, 2012

Review: Curse the Names by Robert Arellano (3.5/5)


When I first received Curse the Names from the Librarything Early Reviewers Program, I was under the false assumption that it was a mystery/thriller.  A large part of that may be due to the fact that Arallano’s last novel, Havana Lunar, was a hardboiled tale nominated for the 2010 Edgar Awards.  The publishers also used praise for Havana Lunar to promote the new novel, so along with information about Curse the Names you had quotes stating that it was, “A Noir novel short enough to read on a plane ride.”  Note to publishers:  quit effing doing that. 

The remainder of my misconceptions I blame on blurb on the back cover.

High on a mesa in the mountains of New Mexico, a small town hides a dreadful secret. On a morning very soon there will be an accident that triggers a terrible chain reaction, and the world we know will be wiped out.

James Oberhelm, a reporter at Los Alamos National Laboratory, already sees the devastation, like the skin torn off a moment that is yet to be. He believes he can prevent an apocalypse, but first James must escape the devices of a sensuous young blood tech, a lecherous old hippie, a predator in a waking nightmare, and a forsaken adobe house high away in the Sangre de Cristo mountains whose dark history entwines them all.

A massive bomb is ticking beneath the sands of the Southwest, and time is running out to send a warning. James has to find a way to pass along the message—even if it ruins him.

See all that up there?  That, ostensibly, is what the book is supposed to be about.  But it’s not.  Curse the Names is really about one man’s mental unraveling, and thus, it is more psychological horror than anything.  But that’s not all.

Like the blurb says above, James Oberhelm works as a journalist for Los Alamos National Laboratory.  He has a cushy six-figure gig, an expensive house, and a dead marriage.  While getting his blood drawn (gotta watch those lipids, after all) the goth blood tech working on him tells him that for the Fourth of July she and her friends are going up to an abandoned house near a local state park where they’ll get trashed and tell ghost stories.  She invites James (the 40-something journalist) to come up to so they can “hook up.”  Being the loser that he is, James cajoles his wife into going up to said park for a camping trip, and while she’s asleep, he hikes up to the house for his promised hookup.  But he finds no one home at the creepy adobe house.  His dog Oppie finds a shopping bag full of old animal bones, but nothing else.  Defeated and thoroughly convinced of his loserdom (about time), James goes back to the campsite for a few hours’ shuteye.

The next day, James heads over to see his pot dealer (yeah, you heard right), the “lecherous old hippie” in the blurb I referenced above.  While he scores some righteous bud, he also asks about the abandoned adobe house.  Hippie drug dealer tells him that back in the 1800s, that house was the site of a triple murder homicide, a homesteading family all murdered by the eldest son, who then killed himself.  Subsequent to that, it was also a hippie commune where our hippie drug dealer lived for a while, but he left due to the “strange shit” that went down there.  It’s bad ju-ju, he says, but James thinks it might make for an interesting story (or at least that’s what he tells everyone), and he sets off to find more about the house by tracking down the hippies that used to live there and researching more about the house’s history.

Robert Arellano
That’s when James’s life starts to go to hell in a hand basket.  He accidentally kills his dog, his identity is stolen and his bank accounts liquidated, he contracts radiation poisoning, he loses his job, his marriage finally disintegrates, and his mind ultimately breaks with reality.  There are dreams, too—of the past, of the future, of some nuclear calamity about to unfold around Los Alamos Labs, and at the center of it all lies that house full of "bad ju-ju.".  In short, James becomes quite unhinged.  If you ask me, though, it is his own fault.  He tokes like a chimney (he takes that Sublime song “Smoke Two Joints” a little too literally), drinks like a fish (his days are a litany of pitstops at various watering holes), and gnoshes oxycodone like candy.  I had to laugh when the character complains about the cholesterol in egg yolks, and then slugs back a couple manhattans for his breakfast instead.  Oh yeah, and he’s a totally self-absorbed, narcissistic prick.  But then again, very rare is the journalist who isn’t.  To James’s credit, Arallano leaves the narrative rather open-ended, allowing the reader to decide—is James really seeing all these horrible visions, really witnessing “the skin torn off a moment that is yet to be,” or is he just batshit crazy?  I’m leaning toward the latter, but then again I’ve always been a skeptic at heart.

The tension in the book is unbelievable.  I wouldn’t say it’s scary, though—more like unnerving.  That is mostly because of the frenetic pace of events.  Arallano takes you through one thing after the other, never letting the pace slow so that you (or the narrator, for that matter) cannot stop and really reason through the recent events.  Book critics, I think, generally use the term “rollercoaster” for this type of thing.  Admittedly, my state of mind while reading the book probably had something to do with this impression.  I was awake at three o’clock in the morning, bleary-eyed, jet-lagged (after a nine hour flight), and delirious from coughing my lungs out.  The entire reading experience was a bit surreal.  It was as if I were unraveling along with James, though whether that is due to the writing or because I truly was a little bit out of my gourd, I don’t know.

The writing, imagery, dialogue, and style of Curse the Names are all excellent.  I didn’t exactly understand what the title had to do with anything, but that’s OK.  Plenty of books have titles that don’t have anything to do with the plot, so I didn’t mind.  The reason that this book didn’t get more than three stars from me was because it lacked direction.  The plot meanders.  It jumps from the breakdown of an addict, to an investigative thriller, to psychological horror, and back again.  It was as if the author started out trying to write one kind of novel—the “descent into madness” type of thing, and what evolved was more like an environmentalist’s harbinger of a nuclear nightmare.  Then again, maybe a meandering and disjointed plot better reflects a mind slipping into madness.  Maybe Arallano planned it that way.  If so, the concept will probably go over most readers’ heads, but maybe the novel deserves better than three stars.  I dunno.  Call it three and a half.

In the end, I think this is one of those books that you’ll have to read yourself.  It can elicit a lot of different reactions, and it really depends on your tastes as a reader and your mental state during the reading.  The good news is that it’s a short book.  You easily can finish it in an hour or two, and then you’ll have the day to mull over what the hell you just read. 

Matter of fact, I’m still mulling.






23 comments:

  1. Oh, hell. I got confused just reading the review. (Not that your review wasn't cohesive; isn't there just WAY too many elements in this book?) I like big, bawdy, crazy books so maybe I'll like this one. And this seems to be another case of blurb gone bad; publishers really need to get the blurbs right. Thanks for the review

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  2. Thanks for stopping by, Varsha. Yeah, there was a lot of stuff in the book, but the more I think about it, the more I start to believe that it was supposed to be that way. Like, the reason that it sounds like a roiling ball of cobras is because it was meant to--because that's probably what it feels like to loose your mind. I dunno. Maybe you can give it a read and tell me what you think. Then we'll pow wow about it and solve all the world's problems. ;)

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  3. Tense and dense book. Reminded me of the movie Enemy of the State with Will Smith & Gene Hackman. Is it one of those books that you found and liked more after you finished reading it?

    http://www.ManOfLaBook.com

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    1. Yeah, I think so. When I originally put the book down, I was kind of "meh" about the whole thing. But as I started thinking about what I would say in my review, I started to appreciate more and more about the book and began to wonder if it was better than I had first thought.

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  4. I have a love/hate relationship with relentless books. I like a little down time in my reading, but on the other hand, any author deft enough to maintain that sort of tension deserves accolades. I'll put this one on my ever lengthening list.

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    1. If you ever get a chance to read it, please let me know what you think. I'd love to hear what someone else thinks--especially from as intuitive a reader as you.

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  5. Well I love your reviews. Have I ever said that? I do, excellently written also I love that you used the phrase batshit crazy. I use it too in fact in the side bar on my blog is a little something that an author wrote in an email on a review I left for him. Which kinda rocked majorly. I mention batshit crazy that's why the segue man I'm random anyway this book sounds good but confusing and spacey and trippy. I think I'll pass on it though.

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    1. No you haven't, but you feel free to tell me as much as you want. Thank you! And if you ever need some good filler for a guest post on your blog or anything, just let me know.

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  6. This novel would make a great neo-noir film. Arellano owes less to Dashiel Hammett than to David Lynch, and as the mysteries unravel, it matters less that the anti-hero, losing his mind, tie it all together than that the reader hold on tight to the last line. O, New Mexico!

    Irene (TeakaToys)

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