“This city’s like a virus. You need a few days, a week,
a month to let it run through you. Then you get immune.”
– Lay Saints by Adam Connell
I’ve been in the book business for more than 20 years and I’ve seen authors come and go. Some authors are like stars, others are like comets – they burn bright momentarily and are then gone. It’s those authors that frustrate me the most as a reader – it grieves me when I discover an extraordinary new author who, after releasing a ground-breaking novel, simply disappears.
It has happened countless times throughout history: Margaret Mitchell released Gone with the Wind – which won the Pulitzer Prize – and never published another novel in her lifetime. The Catcher in the Rye was J. D. Salinger’s only novel. Harper Lee published only one novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird. Wuthering Heights was Emily Brontë’s only novel… The list goes on and on – Sylvia Plath, Anna Sewell, John Kennedy Toole, etc.
Three undeniably brilliant authors in particular stand out in my mind – Stepan Chapman, Stephan Zielinski, and Adam Connell.
Adam Connell published his debut novel Counterfeit Kings in 2004, a wildly original novel that I described thusly: “a down-and-dirty game of deep space hide-and-seek [that] is the antithesis of space opera. There are no majestic armadas, no epic battles, no clearly defined heroes or villains, just ruthless pawns in a deadly chess game searching for a lost king before the defecation hits the rotating oscillator…”
To say that I was shocked when I heard that, after eight long years, his second novel, Lay Saints, was going to be released as an ebook would be an understatement. I downloaded the novel to my NOOK – and was instantly blown away.
While Lay Saints is decidedly Connellian – unparalleled character development, gritty realism, meaty subtext, etc. – it’s a dramatic departure from Counterfeit Kings. Lay Saints is literary fiction but if I had to categorize it, I’d call it bare-knuckled crime fiction with a touch of SF. It’s a gritty, unapologetically brutal story about a drifter with psychic powers who is trying to find his place in the world. Although the storyline is set largely in Manhattan and revolves around jaded strippers, sadistic thugs and organized crime bosses, it’s ultimately a touchingly intimate story about one man’s journey of self-discovery, albeit it a painful and bloody one.
It all revolves around a guy named Calder, a telepath who has roamed across the country for years searching for some kind of contentment. When he comes to Manhattan and is forcibly introduced to a crew of others with similar talents, he quickly becomes entangled in a drama between two rival factions, both of which sell their services influencing people “who want their lives interfered with” – jilted lovers in search of revenge, employees seeking promotions, politicians looking for votes, etc.
Calder falls in with a crew headed by a guy called Sotto and his first job is a big one: to persuade a city councilman to back a contentious real estate project. Matters are complicated when it is revealed that the rival crew – led by a ruthless telepath bossman named Faraday, who also owns a strip joint – has the contract to dissuade the city councilman. Faraday has more than a few psycho psychics in his employ – Big Sir, the acerbic narrator; Briggs, a deeply disturbed murderer who may or may not be part of the clergy; Lundin, his black, gay, and chain-smoking sidekick; etc.
Calder becomes involved with a (don’t call her beautiful) stripper named Tamm at Faraday’s club and the tension between the two crews escalates exponentially. Violence ensues.
Another noteworthy element is Connell’s extensive use of dialogue to further the narrative and deepen the story’s gritty ambiance. The way in which he seamlessly uses colloquialisms and slang is remarkable.
But the thing that really blew me away was the way in which Connell used the setting as symbolism throughout. The numerous allegorical ways in which he described Manhattan was just brilliant. Here are just a few examples:
• Like Calder, Manhattan is a place undergoing constant change: “This wasn’t a place where he wanted to stay. He’d had enough transience in his life so far. Cobbling meals together, bathing in public restrooms, sleeping on floors, wishing winters were summer and summers winter. He’d come to New York for its permanence but found it a place in flux…”
• But it is New York City where Calder finds his life’s mission: “There wasn’t much of a view, so Calder watched the city below. ‘Till I came here,’ he said, ‘I never saw streets move with such purpose.’”
• Calder envisions the abandoned buildings involved in the project as “beautiful monsters” – a fitting description of not only himself and some of the strippers but also civilized urbanites in general.
• "Town cars and limos unloaded fashionable clients. Calder hadn’t thought of Tattletail as high-class. A high-class strip club? Is there such a thing? Like an upscale yard sale? Maybe there is such a thing, Fish. This is a city of contradictions."
Another fascinating thread in Connell’s narrative tapestry is his use of religious terminology and imagery to contradict the decidedly immoral behavior of the characters – like the title: Lay Saints. The chapter heads all have canonical hours, for example, and the imagery throughout is intriguing: the fanatical psycho priest Briggs, smoking a joint rolled in Bible paper, hagiophobia, etc.
Bottom line: Connell’s Lay Saints is the perfect blend of literary fiction and genre fiction. It’s original and unpredictable but also character driven and deeply thought provoking. This is a story that works on multiple levels – and should appeal to multiple groups of readers. Fans of crime fiction, speculative fiction, science fiction, and mainstream fiction alike will find this unique work of fiction virtually unputdownable.
Here’s hoping that it doesn’t take Connell eight more years to release his next novel...
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for the last two decades and has written thousands of reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, Kirkus Reviews, and BarnesandNoble.com. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
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