Honey McGuinness has seen it all, and willingly indulged in most of it. The child of a crazed mother who died apparently trying to kill them both, Honey once followed a path of willful self-annihilation.
I’d ingested, digested, shoved up my ass, and shot into my bloodstream every kind of consciousness-numbing intoxicant, narcotic, and medication known to man – and whatever I missed in my later years my sick-o mother shoved down my throat in the first sixteen. I was experienced, stoned and beautiful.
Honey was also “the most unreasonable kind of addiction” her many lovers ever abided: “a real cock-knocker,” and then some. The way she tells it, every man who ever loved her wound up dying from it.
Ready to kill herself by age twenty-five, Honey instead found another way of disappearing. And this is where we find her, hiding among the anonymous, the forsaken and the forgotten, working in the kitchen of the Salvation Mission in Los Angeles (“The rankness brings me pleasure.”). It’s Skid Row, but it’s about to be gentrified if EB Development Corp has its way and a sudden plague of crack addicts can be cleaned out.
When Honey’s friend, the harmless, crazy-talking Billy – also a favourite of the local cops – is shot to death outside Honey’s apartment building, she finds a wire on his body and pockets the tape. Was Billy a pawn in some police sting gone bad? Or is this something more sinister? She’s determined to find out. She can’t trust the cops, except maybe that one guy – a big lug from Wyoming named Officer Ochs (“call me Skinner … it rhymes with winner”), who seems so sweet and gentle-hearted he might just be the real deal. But Honey knows what she has to do. And she has to do it alone. It’s time to cross over, to step back into the darkness one last time…
This is not, mercifully, another “I-was-an-addict-poor-me” self-published sob story masquerading as a novel. This is the real thing: a carefully planned and superbly executed piece of literary art. In 118 pages, Bonnie Kozek has crafted one of the most original and compelling short novels I’ve read in a long time.
“Original” might not seem the best description for a novel that borrows wholesale the timeworn conventions of hardboiled fiction. It’s all there: the pared-back language; the grim milieu; the pitiless villain; the darkness; the greed. These are stock elements, sure. But it’s how Kozek uses them – and why – that makes Threshold so fresh and enjoyable. Kozek has not, I suspect, set out to become the new Raymond Chandler here. I doubt she’s anticipating life as a best-selling crime writer, either (though Threshold does deserve a wide audience). I suspect her adoption of the genre is less about the market and more about the work. From all the possible modes, Kozek has made a counter-intuitive choice that’s actually entirely appropriate to the kind of story she wants to tell.
And what kind of story is this? It ain’t no simple detective yarn, that’s for sure. Kozek seems to have a deeper – possibly philosophical – concern. The “threshold” of the title isn’t so much a line between innocence and guilt, or between sobriety and addiction, as it is between belief and non-belief – or, if that sounds too theological for you, between a faith in the possibilities of life and the defensive desire to annihilate consciousness. Sounds lofty, doesn’t it? It is. But the style isn’t, and that’s the point. Kozek is using one of the most conventional, familiar and codified forms of fiction to discuss some pretty rarefied themes – themes that could easily drag a more literary novel into mummified academicism or florid self-indulgence.
It works. Brilliantly, in fact. This is such a fine example of how genre requirements don’t stifle creativity but actually channel it and allow it to flow. If life’s demonic undertow is the theme, the hardboiled genre lets Kozek hurl Honey into one hell of rip. The need for action, suspense and a particular kind of voice prevent the novel ever drifting off into a stagnant literary cesspool. At the same time, Threshold is a great example of how writing against genre expectations can be wonderfully effective, too. At several critical junctures the narrative slides into flashbacks and reveries deploying a more fluid and expressive language which makes them resonate all the more powerfully. Kozek inverts the conventional gender roles, too, with Honey as hard and lonely and relentless as any male “detective” before her. Ochs/Skinner, by comparison, is like an inversion of the femme fatale – he’s virtually a male ingénue, God love him.
Noir fiction always involves sex, but Kozek imbues her novel with a bold sexuality (and an apparent delight in scatology) that can be both arousing and repulsive, often at the same time. This isn’t pornography, it’s just good storytelling. I adored Honey’s frankness and her keen awareness of herself and others as sexual beings. Conservative readers will no doubt be scandalised, but there may be some of the old double-standard in that. If it’s perfectly acceptable for a hardboiled male protagonist to recount in vivid detail the way a woman’s clothing hugs her hips or reveals her breasts, why can’t a female protagonist frankly admire the way a man’s trousers show-off his sizeable penis? No reason at all. And if a male reader is momentarily discomfited by it, he can rest assured he now knows how women feel most of the time under the penetrating gaze of men. That’s a threshold of understanding more of us need to cross.
Finally, I can’t end this review without mentioning how gratifying it was to read a self-published novel gloriously free of typographical errors. It’s just one more element that throws a halo of generosity around this book. Yes, generosity. It glows with something you don’t always find in self-published work: respect for the reader. You get the warmest sense that all that writerly effort and care wasn’t just for Kozek’s own amusement. She did it for us, for you. So go read it. Now.
Threshold at Amazon.
Threshold at Backword Books.