Serpent Girl by Matthew CarnahanI should have liked Serpent Girl. The damned thing has an impeccable pedigree. Written by a New York playwright and independent filmmaker with blurbs by no less than Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen, it ought to make the top ten lists for this year’s peculiar books for the hip. Something is just not right here, though.
I’ll give him the setting. Carnahan does obviously have some bona fide knowledge of “carnies,” the borderline psychotic criminals that find their way into a traveling circus. It’s an inventive and colorful setting that allows the author to detail the weird world of the Freaks, a bunch of hardcore cash-hungry outlaws made up of fire-eaters, deranged giants, contortionists, fat men, tattooed irregulars and the titular serpent girl.
Part of it’s the beginning, which seems to have titillated every mainstream media outlet in the country, where our first-person narrator has awoken on the banks of the Columbia River: “When I came to I was squatting and clutching my balls like they were a dangerous little animal that might escape.”
So there you go -- we’re off and running. We’ve met Bailey Quinn, twenty-two years old, throat half slashed and all fucked up on peyote. Sounds like a delightful evening of solid gold entertainment for people like me. Bailey is a criminal, a drunk, and a drug addict with plans to rob the Circus Maximus, a well-drawn traveling freak show of the kind so known and beloved in the American Midwest before we got television. Bailey aims to gain the freaks’ trust through his odd romance with the flipper-armed Serpent Girl.
There’s some good stuff here. The characters, though tremendously bizarre, are very keenly rendered and given enough personality that there’s a sense that there might be someone real underneath all the freak bravado. There are also some nice nods to noir in Carnahan’s bitter and sparse dialogue:
“Keep the peace, bro.”
That caught me off guard. “Oh, yeah, peace to you, too, man.”
“No, bro, the piece. The .22. Sounds like you might need it.” He tossed me a box of shells.
Lots of sex, lots of brutal violence -- it’s like an ancient descendant of a Russ Meyers flick like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! As Bailey runs out his dangerous game of hide-and-go-bludgeon with his outlandish playmates, it’s actually paced really well with scenes of surprising tenderness interlaced with the narrator’s pop-culture-laced invectives that name checks everybody from T.J. Hooker to Scooby Doo.
Unfortunately, every subsequent scene feels like it’s been written specifically to ratchet up the shock factor or hook people who don’t read gritty books with its gritty dialogue. It’s not bad; it’s just harmless, like it had been cooked up a page or two at a time after a hard morning of surfing which, according to Carnahan himself, it was.
Maybe that’s why it seems like Carnahan is trying too hard. Hunter Thompson’s name kept coming around Serpent Girl even before the good doctor went off to the happy hunting ground but even Thompson’s unbalanced writing always felt like an organic concoction. With chapter titles like, “I am a vigilant, righteous, in-your-face motherfucker,” the book just feels too much like a pale imitation of the voices that have come before it -- gonzo lite.
In all fairness, I have to admit that Carnahan himself feels like a bit of a counterfeit as well. His bio hits you over the head with his seventy-seven jobs -- SEVENTY-SEVEN JOBS, I tell you. He’s a working man. He is! All of which, added to his last gigs directing a film about Rudy Giuliani and creating crap television shows for FX plus his repeated acknowledgements for Helen -- that makes him Helen Hunt’s Boyfriend© mind you -- puts a bit of a dent in Carnahan’s verisimilitude.
Don’t mind me, though. USA Today and Mike Myers say it’s darn good and that should be enough, right?
Serpent Girl by Matthew Carnahan