Tuesday, February 06, 2007
FULL DISCLOSURE: The author, B. H. Fingerman, is a friend of mine, though this doesn’t mean that I’ll automatically like his novel. This past year I read a novel by a woman I went to grad school with, and while I admired the craft with which she wrote her book, I didn’t care for the book itself. It’s very uncomfortable when you don’t like the work of friend or acquaintance. It becomes a void all of your conversations dance around.
But I liked Bottomfeeder. The main character, Phil Merman, is a vampire but is neither self-aggrandizing nor self-pitying. He’s just sort of getting on with it. Goes to his job (at night, of course) at a photo archives and occasionally, when hungry, feeds on a human being. Phil preys on those who will not be missed, society’s outcasts, and one gets the sense that this is as much out of a desire to spare a victim’s loved ones any undue pain as it is an attempt to keep his feeding habits private.
Without being obvious, the book poses a basic existential question: what exactly do you do with your life? The fact that the vampires in the book have eternal life only compounds the problem for them. There are those have enough trouble filling 70+ years. But perpetual existence? Some sink into decadence, some make attempts to help other vampires, and others (like Phil) just live their existence day to day, without too much consideration of where they are going and what it all means.
Bottomfeeder is also a good New York novel, one that actually has scenes in Queens and Brooklyn as well as Manhattan. It captures the “Let’s Make A Deal” feeling in New York that anything could be behind any door. It could be an orgy or it could be a group therapy session. As one who still walks around Chinatown thinking to himself “I just know there’s an opium den around here somewhere” this sense of New York’s chaotic yet stable mix felt true.
The above description doesn't hit at how funny the book is. Phil’s point of view is sardonic and bemused by the actions of both the living and the undead. The voice recalls a tough guy private eye, and this could be both an homage to pulp novels and a comment on how such genres have influenced how we think and talk. There’s a sense of characters wanting to play at what they are not. Whether it’s a vampire orgy that Phil senses is just trying too hard to be “bad,” or an annoying friend who speaks with a British accent even though he’s not British, everyone seems to be trying on a persona, and Phil is there to helpfully mock them.