THE CONTORTIONIST’S HANDBOOK. The term ‘cult’ is liberally applied to novels, but can have a myriad of meanings. Some critics habitually bestow it on the sort of book that they may find interesting, but feel will best be appreciated by cooler, hipper and more rebellious souls than themselves and their peers. If one book is certainly destined for at least cult status, it’s Texan writer Craig Clevenger’s excellent debut novel, The Contortionist’s Handbook.
The creative team who filmed the memorable Donnie Darko quickly snapped up the film rights to a work that is just gagging for a big screen adaptation. The novel has a great deal going for it. Craig Clevenger comes up with an interesting and perfectly realised concept, featuring an engaging anti-hero whose story is told with the gutsy sass of an Elmore Leonard thriller, shot through with an elegant literary sensibility. While this constitutes a potent enough blend, The Contortionist’s Handbook also has in play, that wondrous alchemy that is real beauty of the winning novel.20What this generally comes down to is the writer’s ability to order their material and tell the story effectively. Craig Clevenger reigns supreme here: the book is stylistic triumph, showing his strong eye for informative detail, but never letting that interfere with the pacy narrative.
The novel has substance too; its biting critique of American psychiatric and criminal justice systems often evokes a modern One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The hero of this seldom less than gripping tale is John Dolan Vincent, a highly gifted forger who suffers from life-threatening migraines and black-outs. In order to escape from the terrible skull-crushing pains he experiences, Vincent self-medicates. Following such episodes he invariably wakes up in a county hospital compelled to undergo psychiatric evaluation. At this point, things get very interesting. Taking his forging skills to their apogee, Vincent emerges into a new identity he’s previously faked for himself, to assist in avoiding detection for crimes committed in his previous lives. If you have an extra finger on one hand, and ginger hair to boot, this requires great vigilance as well as skill. The major problem for Vincent though, is that he needs to outwit the psychiatric evaluators and convince them that he is not insane, or a suicide risk, and thus worthy of release from hospitalisation.
The stakes are high and the writing a match for it: these passages are full of some the most brilliant trysts you’ll encounter in modern fiction. Not only are the law enforcement agencies after our hero, due to the nature of his skills, John Vincent is highly sought after by members of the criminal fraternity who don’t take no for an answer, thus fuelling the omnipresent sense of double, or even triple, jeopardy in the novel. One of the great joys of this book is letting the author, through the central narrator, take the reader into some very different worlds, and in a most convincing way. Arguably the only aspect where this credibility falls a little short is with regard to Vincent’s love-life. The premise that a plethora of beautiful American women of all backgrounds, from the ballsy strip-club train wreck to the power-dressed yuppie uber-bitch, are all desperately anxious to jump into bed with an often near-destitute ginger-headed guy, might just be a painful one for some readers to swallow. In defence of the novel I’d argue that we all know people who regularly punch above their weight in the sexual marketplace, and often the liberated sense of abandonment of being in a new town or country can facilitate this. The adoption of a new identity then, (we, along with the author, are moved to imagine), should be so much more potently empowering. In the context of the dark, enigmatic character, possessing the single-minded focus of someone with everything to lose, Vincent’s attraction is rendered palpable. Clevenger has produced an utterly persuasive and compelling novel, combining the zest and enthusiasm of a new voice with the craft and the guile of a veteran. Whether you envision the category of ‘cult’ as a filthy dustbin for others to rummage through, or as a safe haven for rare treasures, you won’t get away with putting this book in that, or any other ghetto. The Contortionist’s Handbook is so accomplished, and in so many different ways, that it instantly elevates Craig Clevenger into that top echelon of essential writers to take note of.
Originally featured in the Guardian.