Reviews, Vol. 3.2, June 2009
Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2009
Review by Cynthia Reeser
Paul A. Toth’s novel Finale concludes in a surrealist declension, in the sense of both the grammar and plot, which collides with all the fractal possibility and random order of a Jackson Pollock painting. But I get ahead of myself. Finale’s protagonist, John Thomas, works backward in time, revisiting the girlfriends of his past in reverse order. John seeks out clues that will help him solve the mystery of a threatening letter, and receives answers to questions he never would have thought to ask.
The novel is written in chapters spanning from “Eight” to “Zero” (in that order), interspersed by verse “Earthquake” chapters, which progress from “Earthquake 1.0” to “Earthquake 8.0” (in that order). These little earthquakes have the detached resonance of a Greek chorus infused with a brand of dark humor lined vaguely with a sunny exterior, like that employed by Stephen King at his most wry.
Toth circumscribes a story using language that is straightforward and stripped bare, with the occasional surprise thrown in. For example, post-KO, the prostrate protagonist muses, “My jaw still hurt too much to smile. But underneath that blanket, I would have died content. This was the way to die, not knowing anything, not believing anything with certainty, like a humbled physicist.” Pleasant surprises of verbiage often give way to play on language, as with “I only wanted my mystery to solve itself, reach an equal sign, but it was multiplying. I was dealing in algorithms when simple math was challenge enough for this calculator.”
Peppered with a string of hard-nosed characters, the plot is sometimes reminiscent of a writer like James Ellroy or something resembling a contemporary sound byte from Elmore Leonard. John Thomas is on a quest to solve a mystery—both the one that falls into his lap and, unknowingly, the mystery of himself. In an odd way, he is also questing, after the fashion of Frodo or a round table knight, visiting one person after the other, gathering clues and resources, putting the pieces together. Not surprisingly, given the nature of the quest, some scenes have the feel of a male fantasy revolving around former lovers; in these instances, narrative believability suffers.
Much like the choral final Earthquake oracle predicts, the wrap-up is a speedy ejaculation and the ending a resonant unbeginning. Is it believable? Not quite. Dramatic? Yes. Entertaining? In its entirety. Does the build-up suffer somewhat—is there too much at once? That will be for the reader to decide. Ultimately, Finale’s strong points reside in the narrator’s sense of displacement, as decoded in language surrounding his heritage. The novel’s undercurrent is one that speaks to the disenfranchised, marginalized, multicultural, multiethnic and to movable ethnicities—to flux of that which resides outside of race, looks in and is aware of it, but turns instead toward a more personal selfhood.