Craig Clevenger’s brilliant wit and subversive twists shine through in his debut novel, The Contortionist’s Handbook. Much like Vincent, Clevenger uses excellent sleight-of-hand to lean the writing in one direction to avoid making evident that which is also taking place.
Who is John Vincent Dolan?
John Vincent is a young identity forger, highly-intelligent and drug addict. As he faces being institutionalised for a recent overdose, he has no fears over the questions asked; he’s been in this position before but under different names.
Unfortunately for Vincent, his ability to create new identities is not just targeted by the police, but also by the L.A. crime bosses. And they’re losing patience with their crucial asset. This creates a double tangent of trouble, teamed with his close relationships which are seemingly endangered too, a lot is going on.
Using the skills he learnt as a kid, Vincent possesses excellent sleight-of-hand skills, which comes in useful when dealing with these dangers.
Sleight of Hand
The anti-hero is both engaging and dynamic, looking to switch up his identity whenever the situation calls for it. But with constant moving comes further isolation.
Clevenger creates a dark and gritty environment around John Vincent, further emphasising his insignificance within a vast cityscape. This loneliness helps to keep him grounded as a character because his other escapades often portray him negatively.
Going back and forth between current and past events, the timeline can quickly become muddy, but Clevenger’s writing structure keeps the action clear and precise. The events drift in and out of consciousness as backups for the answers given during his suicide assessment.
Although he spends most of his time running from issues, the protagonist remains both humane and likeable; two qualities that help keep the reader invested. There’s little in the way of filler here, which keeps the flow at a high-end pace all the way to the end.
Through each twist and turn, there’s a new piece of information brought to light, or a fragment of the past explaining his current situation. The narrative remains tight and clear-cut throughout, with an unmistakable style similar to noir-pulp; a grim reality mixed with mysterious circumstances.
One problem I do have with this book is the cliché of a man having seemingly beautiful women falling all over themselves wherever he goes. At one point, he has absolutely nothing, yet a young beauty with a job as a talent executive decides to pamper him with expensive suits, desirable drinks and passionate sex.
These moments felt contrived and out of place with the rest of Vincent’s otherwise grounded existence.
A Noir-Knit Club
Whilst reading this, I was transported back to the first time I picked up Will Christopher Baer’s Kiss Me, Judas. Not only is the tone similar, dark noir cross pulp-fiction, but I felt the enjoyment of embarking on an exciting journey with an unknown author.
To my great surprise, the back end of the book contained an interview with Will Christopher Baer discussing his friendship with Clevenger. It’s crazy how all these authors link up to form a bond around a typical style.
Digging a little deeper, there are old interviews with Clevenger on Chuck Palahniuk’s long-forgotten website, but it takes Archive.org to access them.
It’s easy to call every new book you read a cult-classic, but The Contortionist’s Handbook deserves to be in the same bracket as Geek Love or Fight Club.
The prose is sharp and witty, the character’s equally as enjoyable, and there are plenty of twists to keep you guessing along the way. Overall, this is an excellent debut from a promising author who writes much in the same vein as Chuck Palahniuk, and that’s not something I say lightly.