A nineteen-year-old with no prospects of note and suicidal leanings finds his life turned upside down when one colleague at his bleak factory job kills another. Richard is friends with both Dale, the killer, and Melvin, the victim. Richard is also a burgeoning drug addict–Melvin had been his dealer–living in nowheresville, Ohio, eking out a living on the night shift. DUSK AND EMBER, by Robert Jacoby, certainly takes on aspects of that addiction, flitting around ad-hoc between hazy thought processes and revealing its key facts.
Richard, you see, knew of this murder before it was to happen. That makes his attendance at Melvin’s wake particularly surreal, especially when coupled with Richard’s mind-melting and difficult-to-follow thought process and a life that’s seemingly shaking apart.
The core of the book, which is a prequel to an earlier Jacoby book titled There Are Reasons Noah Packed No Clothes, is about the ride to Melvin’s, which Richard shares with three other oddball characters. It also features various offshoots of the murder story, as well as taking in Richard’s family and his friends–a drug and sex-loving bunch, and a gun.
The story is delivered entirely from Richard’s perspective. That’s no bad thing: it certainly adds drama to the idea, simply because your main protagonist struggles both in the present, and to entirely recall the events of the past. He has difficulties with focus, his mind wandering abstractly throughout. That’s charming, but also, at times, confusing. It feels a lot like a real life stream-of-consciousness, with the occasional critical detail emerging shiny from amongst the swirling, murky whole.
Perhaps necessarily, given the story’s tight time scale and it’s difficult subject matter, there are aspects of DUSK AND EMBER that feel like a deep, experimental character study. Jacoby is big into mannerisms and quirks of thought; deep-filled asides that explore character’s motivations and backgrounds in a depth that goes beyond what’s strictly necessary for the progression of the story. Sometimes these asides are fascinating: there’s no question Jacoby’s characters are developed to a heady and intensive extent. Equally often, however, the descriptive adornments give the book a really slow-paced feel, one in which a scene can seem to plod by in hyper-descriptive slow motion.
The idea of DUSK AND EMBER is fascinating: almost like a toned-down, less party-focused Hunter S. Thompson monologue, combined with a murder story and an attempt to portray a life that flips upon itself almost overnight. The sheer wackiness of the delivery is as confusing as you might expect from an unfocused and drug-addled main character. As a result, for all its literary beauty, Jacoby’s text is also hard work for its slow-building rewards.
DUSK AND EMBER is a smart and interesting concept that has real literary and conceptual merit, but can be a tough, discombobulating read.
~James Hendicott for IndieReader