November 2002

Christian Walters

fiction

Undersurface By Mitch Cullin

At last, someone has written a cautionary tale about the dangers of sneaking out on your spouse and children to have unprotected, anonymous homosexual sex in public bathrooms after dark in a city park, because you might become a murder suspect. Our so-called "leaders" have failed to raise the warning signs about this, and I applaud Mitch Cullin and the rest of the publishing industry.

But I may be getting ahead of myself. Blame the book - following it chronologically is like reading the script to Memento while on pain pills.

Undersurface examines the problems we can unleash when we give in to our baser desires and delusions. Our friends, families, jobs, freedoms are at risk, not to mention our sanity or even our lives. And by "baser desires and delusions," I don't mean telling yourself that calories don't count on the weekend. If that's what you're looking for, I recommend the Rosie O'Donnell Diet & Exercise Program.

We start the book at the end of the story. John Connor is a guilt-ridden homeless man living in the alleys and viaducts of Phoenix. His only companion is another homeless man who puts random thoughts together into creepily prophetic wisdoms. Like Yoda, if Yoda had been on acid.

John Connor is also Sarah Connor's son, and was alternately targeted and befriended by the Terminator. I'm sure it's a coincidence, but the bleaker passages go down easier if you imagine the antagonist with an Austrian accent.

As the narrative leaps about in time, we discover that John was a teacher, husband, and father of two. He was growing discontent at home because his wife had gained a lot of weight, thereby harming their sex life and giving her a snoring problem. The irony sneaks up on you -- her snoring started a chain of events that led him to sleeping on pavement with trucks driving past his head. (This novel was sponsored by the good people at Breathe Right Nasal Strips.)

John eventually moves into the guest room, from which he sneaks late at night to visit the neighborhood porn shops. Window shopping among the dildos and inflatable livestock up front eventually becomes fingering the cock rings towards the back. That quickly leads to the back-room arcade with it's peep shows and dollar slots.

Before long, we are hip-deep in faceless penises being shoved or received through knotholes in the walls. (Cullin works in penises the way other artists work in marble or water colors.) It dawns on us that John just may be dabbling in homosexual behavior.

After a few streams-of-consciousness guilt parades and a dollop of insight from Yoda, sprinkled liberally with self-justification and half-baked for 20 pages, John has graduated from the porn shop and has accepted a night job in the far stalls at public park's bathroom. We want to shout "don't do it!" and "go back home and sleep with your wife!" Not because we Puritanically believe that gay sex leads to ruin, but because the book's free-form chronology has already shown what happens from all this.

Of course, there's a murder in the next stall over. John flees, leaving his blood-covered jacket in a dumpster, vowing to no longer consider dabbling in homosexual behavior. Turns out later that it was an undercover cop investigating stories of illicit sexual behavior in the park.

The trickling stream of guilt and the gentle showers of justification are nothing compared to the disastrous flash-flood of fear and driving monsoon of delusion to come. All of a sudden, snoring isn't such a big deal.

Most of the rest of the narrative unfolds like you expect. John feels guilty because of the dead cop's family on the screen. He calls a tip line and goes to meet the investigating officer. In his effort to not admit what he was doing in that bathroom, he incriminates himself and admits he tossed his jacket (which the police had found). His wife packs up the kids and leaves, and he disappears into the streets until he can prove his innocence.

I won't give away the ending. Trust me when I say that, if you followed my advice, the last 10 pages will sound in your head like Arnold Schwartzenegger reading a police blotter.

This is an easy book to pick on, and it has its flaws. Most annoying is John's Yoda-like homeless compadre'. He might as well say "Names don't mean nuthin' onna street, but when I had one, it was Mr. P. Device. You can jus' call me Plot." He's a catalyst for some of John's deep thoughts, but he's no more believable than if the stars rearranged themselves to read Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin. This is supposed to be based on a true story. Yoda there must have been based on a Ouija board.

Despite all that, I liked it. The ending manages to catch you off-guard, and John's rapid descent into madness is more gripping than an hour's worth of "Wildest Police Chases."

But the message behind the action makes it all worth a read. Unchecked guilt and unsatisfied need often, perhaps always, combine to destroy everything they touch. Starting with sanity. John's shame at cheating on his wife and fear of getting caught in the act constantly war in his mind with his need for the physical gratification he cannot find anywhere else. And it's his mind that bears the scars after those battles.

That's a weighty moral for such a short book, and it's surprising after a setup for a standard mistaken-identity, find-the-real-killer story.

Plus, it's delivered so starkly that you are forced into a kind of self-audit. Just when you're psyched up to feel sorry for this weak little man, you're suddenly looking at your own hidden secrets and lapses in control. It might not be a pleasant experience for everyone, but you have to respect a book forcing that from you in the middle of a murder story.

Undersurface by Mitch Cullin
Permanent Press
ISBN: 1579620779
192 Pages