Lamentation, by Joe Clifford. Longboat Key, Florida: Oceanview Publishing. 201 pages. $26.95, hardcover.
It’s relatively easy to find a crime narrative that’s gritty. However, finding one in which the grittiness intensifies once it stops dealing with guns, drugs, and violence and crosses into the realm of emotions is much harder. Joe Clifford’s Lamentation does exactly that. Clifford takes the broken life of a junkie, big economic interests, a man who never figured out how to be a good father, and the horrific sexual perversions of a rich man and twists them together into a sharp narrative that cuts to the bone of life on the wrong side of the tracks and how hard it is for justice to be made.
Jay Porter is the quintessential small town guy who stuck around despite a bleak future and a lack of opportunities. He lives in Ashton, New Hampshire, and ekes out a living cleaning houses that no one else is around to clean and tries to keep what little is left of his relationship with his former girlfriend and their two-year-old son going. When he receives a call saying that the sheriff is questioning Chris, his drug-addicted brother, about his missing junkie business partner, Jay runs out to rescue him, which is something he’s done countless times in the past. This time around, however, things are different. Chris is suspected of murder, and there’s a significant amount of evidence against him. Jay had set up a computer disposal business and tells his brother the current situation stems from something he and his partner found in a hard drive, something horrible that could bring a lot of trouble to some powerful figures in town. Jay is reluctant to believe his brother’s tale, but when Chris disappears and he starts searching for him, it quickly becomes obvious that there’s something to the farfetched story and whatever the hard drive contained, and those who could be affected by the truth will stop at nothing to keep the information from going public. What follows is a gripping narrative of small-town lies, secret agendas, and despicable acts.
Clifford is one of those authors who are very comfortable operating in the interstitial space between genre and literary fiction. His work falls exactly on the dividing line, and that makes it a treat for readers on both sides of the equation. In Lamentation, he sets the story up and forces the reader to build rapport with the characters before throwing them headfirst into a maelstrom of evil forces and lies that seem insurmountable. Jay and Chris are far from perfect, but the individuals they’re up against are worse because they’re not open about their peccadillos. When justice, gut-churning cruelty, and danger come to the surface, it’s almost impossible not to root for the down-and-out brothers.
While this narrative crosses into literary territory, it’s clearly a crime novel, and the noir atmosphere is pervasive and permeates both people and places:
I stared out my fogged-up windshield, panning over the cluster of dumpy efficiencies and converted attic apartments like mine, the spattering of depressing bars and discount retail stores, all crammed into a claustrophobic downtown center. I’d lived here practically my entire life. (…) I could never escape Ashton. I had remained tethered to its earth like an old farmer rooted to the withering, diminished crops, simply because I couldn’t think of anything better to do.
Descriptions like this abound, and they make Clifford’s novel hit harder than most crime fiction stories do. Also, while there is all the death, threats, and violence that can be expected from a crime narrative, there are similarly elements like familial relationships, fatherhood, loyalty, and trust that are explored and add a multiplicity of emotional layers to the book. This attention to detail and breaking away from tropes is what makes Lamentation an outstanding read. A great example of this smart writing is the weather, which the author uses as an omnipresent entity that adds depth to many scenes. A door left open, a chill running down a spine, dirty snow on boots or a window opened while tension is running high are all minutiae that place this among the best crime novels of the year:
Trace flurries drifted from a silver sky, wipers swishing in a lullaby. Fast cars whisked past us going in the opposite direction, as the sound of spinning wet tires on pavement echoed down the valley boulevard, lost to the menacing tower of Lamentation Mountain.
Lamentation is an affecting novel about dark secrets and doing the right thing. It defies categorization and sticks with the reader long after the last page has been turned. In a world full of stories where there are clearly defined good and bad guys, Clifford offers a narrative in which there are only shades of bad to chose from and the odds are stacked against the less evil, and that makes it simultaneously a touch read and one that’s really hard to put down.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, Texas. He’s the author of Gutmouth (Eraserhead Press, 2013). His work has appeared in The New York Times, Verbicide, The Rumpus, HTML Giant, The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction, and other print and online venues.