Well kids have you been waiting to hear whether the anticipation I'd been kicking around inside for Frank Wheeler Jr.'s The Wowzer was going to pay off? It's one I've had my hopes set on for a few months and now that it's here, I'm pleased to announce that it does indeed hold it's own and it will bloody the shins of anybody trying to resist it. The story's action largely takes place in and around Fayetteville, Arkansas, a place I'm personally familiar with, but lord knows I never ran afoul anything near as nasty as the events and characters contained in this here book o' blood.
Jerry is a sheriff's deputy who's come to a moment of transition in his career. Aside from the usual duties of a law enforcement officer he's a significant part of the illicit substance industry. He acts as muscle and hatchetman for Sheriff Haskell who answers in turn to The Sanhedrin who run the show in the region.
You smell that? Something in the wind's just not right, and when in doubt, Jerry's employers generally have him kill folks. Lots of em. Unfortunately for Jerry, this time he suspects his name may be on the list to be kilt and he's got to discourage any notions that he's gonna go easy. Without anyone he can trust Jerry sets about dismantling operations one bullet at a time till he uncovers the source of trouble.
Deputy Jerry is a killer without remorse, but what he lacks in burden of conscience he makes up for in psychological damage. He shares 'horrific childhood trauma' as the number one ingredient in the recipe followed to create the man of misfiring emotional, sexual and social synapses he's become with other literary slayers like Hannibal Lecter, Dexter Morgan and Lou Ford, but unlike Lecter he takes no pleasure in killing, unlike Morgan he has no compulsion to, and unlike Ford he seems to have formed at least one genuine human bond.
The neat trick The Wowzer pulls off is staying entirely inside Jerry's point of view while shuffling through multiple stages of the reader's relationship with their host. No doubt Jerry can be charming as well as someone we can get behind (especially when he goes up against other ruthless and evil foe), but we become terrified for and of him when he/we realize that his murderous intentions have turned toward innocents and we are placed in the position of rooting fully against him in a particularly harrowing passage that finds him interrogating an unwilling cooperator. While he describes the ghastly things he's prepared to do to the man's family if he doesn't part with the information Jerry wants to hear, the reader is forced to step back and carefully examine their loyalties. But what do you know, a couple pages later, Jerry's got us comfortably inside his pocket again.
A novel is the right medium for this experience too. Wheeler's balance of pulpy backwood shoot-em-up, crime drama and psychological suspense would be awful hard to get right in a screen adaptation. For instance, after enjoying Casey Affleck's high-tension turn as Jim Thompson's aforementioned most enduring character Lou Ford in Michael Winterbottom's (remarkable) The Killer Inside Me for the third time I was overcome with the urge to check out Stacy Keach's stab at the role in the 1976 version directed by Burt Kennedy, and... I'll stick with Affleck. The earlier film was far more typical in its handling of complex material - choosing a single side of the emotional spectrum to set the tone. Nevermind that the Kennedy/Keach version committed the unforgivable sin of omitting the book's most memorable scene (outside the diner with the bum - which, though included in the recent adaptation - of which again I'm a big fan - I gotta say I thought the scene still fell well short of the significance it lends the book), it cut an entire dimension out of the character. Entirely ignored were Ford's humor, manifest most often in his mean-spirited needling of the citizens he served as deputy, that contributed so much to our sense of the character's self-awareness, and instead made him an actual dimbulb without much range in his creative problem-solving.
If reading The Wowzer and thinking back on The Killer inside Me has whet my appetite for anything upcoming it has got to be William Friedkin's adaptation of Tracy Letts' play Killer Joe (with Matthew McConaughey in the title role) which will hopefully be disgracing a multiplex near you soon. If you, like me, are of the opinion that his first Letts adaptation Bug was the best thing Friedkin had done in twenty years and got you excited about the guy who made French Connection, Sorcerer and To Live and Die in L.A. again, you should be on board with this killer thriller. And don't let me be the only one laughing in all the inappropriate places this time around, please.
Jedidiah Ayres writes fiction and keeps the blog Hardboiled Wonderland.
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