Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
The Bait Shack
by Harry Hughes
ISBN: 978-1-905202-92-8, 2008
Dale Cooles is a mathematician ready to tie up some messy ends. He’s quit his fancy university job, said goodbye to his last fling, and applied himself to his new life as unemployed, kept husband of Lacy Chamblet. Lacy is secretary to robber baron Henry Meredith, who makes his living cheating his tenants, avoiding tax, and hiring low cost street kids too unemployable to blow the whistle on him. But this time, he’s teamed up with mobster Johnny Avalino, and his plans take a nasty turn. Are Dale and Lacy smarter than Meredith thinks they are? Is thwarted conservation officer Calvin Revels able to pay Meredith back for destroying an endangered species of bird, along with Revels’ career? And just who is the vicious Connie Jablonski, and what is his relationship to Meredith’s other employee Twist Van Houghten – a boy with a face twisted from Bell’s Palsy, a head twisted from a run in with a concrete slab, and an odd ability to turn people’s names into fully expressed acronyms?
The Bait Shack opens like a Stephen King thriller, and keeps up the pace, but it soon becomes obvious that this is a very funny read: humour overpacing the horror. Dale and Lacy are super quick on the comebacks – the witty one liners keep coming, alongside an omniscient narrative voice with a vocabulary to rival Umberto Eco’s. The two protagonists are almost too clever, but their toe tripping insecurity, bumbling, and honesty keeps everything real, and provide a slapstick counter to the rapid pace of their minds. They’re only klutzes after all: not evil or manipulative like everyone else. It’s a rollicking ride to the surprise denouement, and the murder mystery keeping everything rolling along.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss this book as ‘feel good’, light-hearted beach reading just because it’s fun and fast. Both Dale and Lacy are serious, believable characters Between the whine and the wine, Dale often expresses profound insights on the nature of modern society:
The modern age of microchips and patented statistical programs assured him future employment in a market of his choosing. He was born into a voracious republic self-defined and regulated by numbers; a nation gone bonkers in its quest for dependent variables lying two standard deviations beyond the mean of the bell-shaped curve. Theorems once confined to the toolboxes of science were now brandished in the cellars of corporate houses and media conglomerates. (15)
At other times he’ll explore the nature of man’s existence against an aging body and midlife crisis:
Behind the wheel, he calculated himself to be about 22,000,000 minutes old. What if he were to crack open a moment and secure a glance at the heart of time? What would it show him? He might understand why years ran by like stallions or fathom the eternity of an hour. Would a broken moment spew lost images like a geyser or did some powerful vacuum impound them forever? He resented the sequestering of whole chunks of his past into impenetrable time pockets. Maybe there had been something to all that mumbo-jumbo gleaned from me generation manuals in a time gone dead. Never mind infantile amnesia, he was having trouble with the last three years; not so much the events, but their sequence.
The exploration of themes like how we deal with midlife, love, and hate in the 21st Century – in the wake of the sixties — makes this a book that resonates long after the fun stops. Hughes’ descriptive powers are exceptional, from the Dickensian characters carrying the full range of quirks – both charming and obnoxious, to the rich natural world of its Long Island setting:
A wide, brackish creek sliced silently through acres of salt grass and cattails while the ocean, only a mile away, kept a constant, rolling breeze pulsing through the stems. Frequently, around dusk, the sun would bank into a ridge of low clouds and illuminate the swaying vegetation with a radiant, burnt orange luster. Egrets and herons foraged regularly along the narrow shoals feeding into the main creek. An occasional osprey could be seen soaring against the sky with twitching prey clutched in its powerful beak, en route to a hidden nest. (30)
In The Bait Shack, Harry Hughes takes noir to a new level. Wry, classy, compelling and utterly hysterical. Think Iain Pears crossed with Martin Amis. Dale and Lacy make an endearing team of anti-heroes in a world showing its true colors. Read it for pleasure and and then re-read it to find surprising richness in the depths of its insights.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, and Quark Soup.