Charlie Huston, The Cleanup Hitter
This is the part where I say, “I told you so.”
For years, I’ve been talking up this guy, Charlie Huston. Now I know I’m not the only one -- his novels about reluctant bloodsucker and vampiric enforcer Joe Pitt have been garnering a near cult-status for some time; he recently took a crack at reviving Moon Knight for Marvel Comics; and the Hank Thompson trilogy, a priceless epic about a former baseball star who accidentally ends up with a bagful of Russian mafia money, has been must-read material for the crime-writing set for years. That’s not even counting Pulpnoir.com, the repository for the author’s unpublished bits, pulp fiction trivia, and other unpleasantness to keep you up at night.
Then something funny happened. In 2007, Huston scribbled himself up a stand-alone crime novel, The Shotgun Rule about a quartet of teens finding trouble in 1983. (People get confused and say it’s a coming-of-age novel. Don’t kid yourself.) Its popularity made his publishers finally see the light. Ballantine spun the dial on his publishing schedule so that Huston’s crime novels would hit hardback in the middle of winter, while his vampire paperbacks would come along on the flipside of the year.
Blam! Just in time to earn all that Christmas dough burning a hole in your pockets, in the middle of January along came Huston’s latest, greatest, and bloodiest achievement: The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death. And wouldn’t you know it; it’s making the guy a rock star.
The New York goddamn Times review starts off, “Just when you think you’ve caught up with him on the curve, Charlie Huston drives right off the cliff, landing on a road no one else could see,” and proceeds to acknowledge that Huston is smarter than the average noir-influenced writer, and deserves the praise that’s being heaped on him by every surviving book review venue in the country. Stephen King personally wrote him an Amazon review, for Christ’s sake. Can I call it, or what?
Here’s the setup of Mystic Arts (which will stand from this point forward as my shorthand for that protracted title): Our main man is Webster Goodhue, a fairly regular bloke who’s all fucked up because Something Bad happened to him not too long ago. He’s buddies with Chev. Kind of, as we see here.
Mostly Chev is cool. Until a chick he thinks is hot comes around. Really, it’s not any different from our whole lives. Only difference is, back when we were kids, Chev turned into a worse stuttering dork around hot chicks than he already was and tried to make up for it by being a dick toward me. He doesn’t get nervous anymore, but he still acts like a dick toward me. Which, sure, sometimes I deserve it, but mostly he’s just trying to be cooler than he is. So who’s the dick?
They, along with their mildly psychotic amigo Gabe and their boss Po Sin, work for Clean Team, a trauma scene cleanup operation. Yes, it’s what it sounds like. They’re the kind of guys referred to only tangentially in Chuck Palahniuk novels, the ones who work miracles with industrial cleaners and soda water to get the grey matter out of the drapes or the pools of blood out of the four-star hotel room.
It’s extraordinary stuff with which to feed a crime novel but only a writer with Huston’s fortitude would make so much of it -- all of you sensitive types can avert your eyes for a few minutes while I go through this next part -- and the backdrop leads to chapter titles that are often as grotesquely funny as they are self-explanatory. See “To Keep Him From Crushing My Spine,” or “Till His Neighbors Smelled Him,” or my personal favorite (and the one that seems to be making the rounds in the reviews, not least in King’s), “Pipe Bomb In The Ass,” the latter involving the victim who made himself a seriously portable high-explosive device which he decided to detonate while sitting on his waterbed, leading to a remarkable result, the “internal dynamics” of which are explained in horrific detail. Which isn’t even the best part. The best part is when Web asks the deputy on the scene why the vic did it. “'Brain tumor,' says the deputy, pointing. 'Guess he showed it who’s boss.'”
Lest you think I’m just here to join the ranks of reviewers who are just here to give it up for the book, think again. I knew this book would be good (okay, maybe not quite this good) and I’ve thought for a long time that novels like this one are the future of crime fiction, the genre-busting stories that will finally burn all those cozies, cop books, and run-of-the-mill thrillers off my beloved bookshelves. But I swore back in my December column that I would let the book alone, plunk down my hard-earned cash like everybody else, and buy the book and enjoy it like a normal person.
Lucky for me and you, I screwed that up when I put Huston’s new book on a best-of-the-year list. That landed a manuscript in my lap and necessitated a call to Los Angeles, where we find the author in a parked car, juggling his cell phone, trying to come to terms with the current state of affairs. It would seem the writer is handling things with his usual cool, when I point out that most writers would be ecstatic with his latest reviews.
“Oh, trust me, man,” says Charlie Huston. “They give me orgasms, too.”
Not too long ago, Huston moved to Los Angeles from New York City, where all of the Joe Pitt novels are set, and had to find his way into his new books in a way he hadn’t before.
“I didn’t know what to expect from the move to L.A.,” he said. “I’ve had to go back to New York to get a taste of it to start the newest Joe Pitt books. But I knew within those first couple of months here that the next crime novel I wrote would be set in L.A. I wrote The Shotgun Rule (set in California) while living in New York but it was turf with which I was intimately familiar, so I didn’t need to be exposed to it to write it competently. For the New York books, I just started writing about my immediate environment. Even though I had been there for years, it’s always energetic and evocative. It’s New York, so you can’t go wrong.”
After the move, Huston found that Los Angeles provided just as inspiring an environment as New York, providing energy for his writing in some of the same ways that Manhattan and Brooklyn did, but also changing the tenor of the narratives that came to him.
“Los Angeles is a much more powerful environment than I thought it was going to be,” he said. “I thought my reaction would be neutral. But in the same way that New York concentrates and compresses everything and generates this pulsing, driving energy, L.A. spreads it out. The city allows things to sprawl and wander a lot more. I think that’s evident in the new books. Mystic Arts is much more of a wandering kind of story, with a crime plot that is kind of a shaggy dog tale. It’s a lot of fun and it’s a good story but the color in the story came out of this city in a lot of ways. I think most writers have a vibrating antenna inside them and they translate what they pick up into their work. If you have a particularly compelling environment, you tune in that much more.”
Mystic Arts also has the significance of being only the third Charlie Huston book to hit hardback, and I wondered if he was surprised by this upgrade to the big leagues.
“Well, Caught Stealing (the first Hank Thompson novel) was a hardback the first time out,” he recalled. “Then they backed off, quite reasonably, because that book didn’t prove out their theory. When I first got a book deal, we got a hardback offer and a paperback offer, and I was shocked because I never thought anybody would put me into hardback. But there’s a part of me that was delighted to start off in paperbacks. That’s where I’m comfortable as a reader, and it’s a happy place to live as a writer. I’m trying to figure out how to find time to do something for Hard Case Crime one of these days, just so I can have one of those beautiful covers.”
Mystic Arts was billed early on as another stand-alone story in the vein of The Shotgun Rule, but Huston admits that he has further plans for Web Goodhue and company, if readers will have them.
“I started out wanting to write a series that could sustain a longer arc,” Huston explained. “The Hank Thompson books were always limited to a trilogy, and Joe Pitt was always meant to be a terminal series, too. As I got further into this business that I stumbled across, I thought it would be a great place for this character to start, and then develop into more of a traditional detective. As I got even deeper into it, and started interviewing people who worked in the trauma cleaning business, I realized I didn’t just want him to start here and get into trouble and then suddenly he’s a detective. I wanted this to be his primary business. I’ve decided that it’s a series but we’ll see what my publisher says. Right now, they like the book and they’re enthusiastic about it.”
Of course, right after figuring out how he stumbled onto this novel career for Webster Goodhue, the next step was asking the author to talk a little more about his hero, who isn’t the most sympathetic character in the whole world.
“What we see is a guy who’s a real pain in the ass,” Huston laughed. “Yes, he’s kind of an asshole but I don’t think that’s necessarily his true nature. He just doesn’t know when to shut his mouth, which is a characteristic he’s had all his life. Mostly we see that he’s losing all of his friends. He’s had something traumatic happen in his past and it’s knocked him into this place where he doesn’t know how to cope anymore. He certainly doesn’t know how to cope with any kind of intimacy. Intimacy carries the seeds of loss and he doesn’t want to be there anymore, so he’s pushing everybody away.”
For all of Webster’s lonesome sorrow, the book is one of those rare ensemble pieces that shows the daily absurdity, electrical banter, and unlikely dependability that develops between people that go to work together every single day. As surely as the cube rats of Douglas Coupland’s Jpod or the Animals that stalk the Safeway aisles in Christopher Moore’s Bloodsucking Fiends, readers should find themselves fascinated by, if not necessarily sympathetic towards, the unwholesome professionals of Mystic Arts. There’s a familial quality among the cleanup crew that Huston admits is, at least partially, a deliberate choice on his part.
“You are who you are and you have the values that you have, so they tend to emerge in your writing,” Huston says. “For this book, part of it was that desire to write in that tradition of the detective series, and there’s always that supporting cast. So sure, there was an effort to create a cast that could develop and evolve where those soap-operatic aspects could take place. But not all of my process is that terribly conscious. I knew a couple of characters were there -- Web’s best friend Chev, his employer Po Sin, and this dark, potentially violent character who turned out to be Gabe -- and I knew I wanted to have a romantic hook that was a little less grim. But I didn’t plan on Web’s parents, who really evolved and came out of nowhere for me.”
For all the humor, humanity and cutting-edge writing that infuses The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, I always wondered if Huston had any reservations about the graphic nature of the material. Luckily, he’s unfazed.
“The material is what it is,” Huston says. “Even when I try to take a lighter hand, there’s a lot of darkness in there. There’s obviously a lot of gore and vulgarity, and it’s not for everybody. I would love for as many people as possible to read the book and enjoy it and have a good time, but I know I’m writing for a fairly narrow band. That said, I’ve always delighted when I hear from folks who wouldn’t necessarily be in the obvious sweet spot for one of my books. When I get a note from a middle-aged grandmother in the Midwest, it tickles me to death.”