Every Shallow Cut by Tom Piccirilli
Despite having a pedigree from the edgy-as-hell horror community, Tom Piccirilli ultimately doesn’t have a gonzo bone in his body as far as I can tell. In recent years, at least, he writes taut, controlled, and melancholy thrillers that owe far more to Cornell Woolrich than to Joe Lansdale or Skipp & Spector. In Piccirilli’s tightly-wound characters, I see the resentment of the doomed for the in-denial, the savagery of the totally-fucked, deeply human critters backed into a corner. There’s also a deeply pessimistic sense of brooding psychological horror that doesn’t take an act of violence to actualize itself…in fact, when the violence comes, it’s something of a relief. And did I mention how the brutality in Piccirilli comes from the sense of hopeless apathy and grim poison in the world around his characters, not from a hopped-up and easily-digested fairy tale moonbeam of violence and gangsters? I probably should also say that Piccirilli is “not for the faint of heart,” since that’s what you’re supposed to say about fiction that punches you repeatedly in the stomach. If that’s not your flavor, move along.
In his self-described “noirella” Every Shallow Cut (March, 2011 from Chizine Books), Piccirilli often feels to me like Woolrich in Fright or like Charles Willeford in Pick-Up or like John D. MacDonald in his underrated pre-Travis McGee Fawcett Gold Medal stand-alones Cry Hard, Cry Fast or The Neon Jungle. But don’t get me wrong; Piccirilli doesn’t have the gleeful, sadistic guffaws of Willeford’s later works; any sadism is born of tragedy, not tourism.
If you’re a misanthropic son-of-a-bitch, bitterly hopeful or just addicted to the poetry of the damned, this shit is tonic for the soul.
In Cut, Piccirilli delivers a lyrical appreciation of the downward spiral with serrated edges. An unnamed first-person protagonist is maybe just a little too close in a few life-details to Piccirilli himself, though probably (hopefully) distant enough to reflect only the darkest side of the author’s fears. It’s a portrait of the artist as exactly what he thinks he is, when the lights go out and the panic attacks start. It doesn’t pull punches.
But that’s where Piccirilli steps out of the thriller genre and slides effortlessly into the kind of down-and-outer tale rendered in Nelson Algren or even Steinbeck’s The Pearl. Our narrator is homeless and broke, living in his car, estranged from his ex-wife, alienated from his only remaining family and isolated by grim depressive tendencies and perceived professional failure from an adolescent past that’s idyllic in retrospect only because the present sucks so hard. He’s got only his smelly dog Churchill to love him — which may sound glurgy, but it’s arrestingly real. Our hero feels fucked precisely because he almost made it, which is when he realized that there was no “almost.” The deck was stacked against him from the start, whether by his own insecurities and failings or by the ugliness of everything to begin with, the narrator is even less sure than the reader.
What’s more, Every Shallow Cut is very much of the moment — a short trip for a doomed misanthrope locked in the hopeless spiral of a world that clearly will not be getting better anytime soon.
I mentioned a lot of influences on this “genre” or “format,” if you can use either word to describe the down-and-outer novel. There’s Woolrich, Willeford, Steinbeck; whatever. If there’s one book that this reminds me of Every Shallow Cut in theme, it’s Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Despite Cut being ultra-noir in writing style, the tones are very different, because Horses is well outside the box for its time period and tradition (the Depression and prewar crime novels, respectively.) But the intention is similar. Every Shallow Cut doesn’t have the sense of breezy, unbalanced and mentally addled humor that permeates Horses, but as a hybrid of what gets called “literary fiction” and what gets called “crime fiction” — or, to put it another way, as a way of hijacking satisfyingly stylistic crime-novel atmosphere in the service of a work of hard-boiled existentialism — Every Shallow Cut is a creepily successful nightmare factory. It may not quite be sui generis, but it’s at once written-to-type and brutally fresh.
Not to make things too obvious, but at times this book hit way too close to home. Let’s just say if you’re a washed-up fourth-rate writer with no hope for redemption — or sometimes worry that you might be — it’s like ripping the scab off the place where Dr. Benway amputated your soul.
Every Shallow Cut is a new entry in a classic but too-rare form that cuts close to the bone. As such, it’s unflinchingly successful.