Written by: James Keen
“Well, the cops should be here in a minute. You mind if I pass the time, tell a story?” -World of Vacancy.
Though the ‘horrors’ do eventually reveal themselves here, when they do it’s with a commendable restraint; indeed it’s arguable that Charles Schmidt’s book, ‘World Of Vacancy’, should be viewed primarily as the author’s philosophical and intermittently grisly-realized treatise on the nature of societal emptiness in both its mental and, perhaps more significantly, spiritual terms, than as a all-out horror novel. It’s the work of a novelist more explicitly interested in exploring levels of meaning and concurrent character resolution than in conjuring vacuous set-pieces of gory text. A work of fiction with supernatural overtones steadfastly retaining a disturbing sub-text, this is a book that lingers agreeably in the mind long after finishing, as all good fiction should.
Told largely from the perspective of two initially divergent narrators, it’s the tale of an ageing cab driver with a resolutely haunting past, ‘Hack’, a beguilingly confusing figure toiling away in the city of Phoenix, Arizona – and a twenty seven year old recovering alcoholic, ‘Nick’. Schmidt flits back and forth between these two disparate voices to create a diabolically intriguing narrative that has much to say about apathy, indifference and, ultimately, redemption.
‘Hack’ is a world-weary archetype; nearing his sixties, he’s a restless sort who ritually loses himself in the late-night ferrying of the various denizens of the town, managing to avoid in the process, a depressing state of existential awareness. He observes at one point, “doing nothing is always an option” but it’s not one he personally can afford to indulge in. His interactions with his ‘fares’ grant him an opportunity to momentarily side-step his own miserable view of humanity as summed up by his opinion that “there ain’t nothing good about none of us.” However, as the novel progresses the reader becomes aware that Hack’s hard-line philosophy is informed not by his present circumstances but by an altogether more sinister and magical history. A remorseful past that becomes more significant and illuminating as the plot advances, underscored by the conscious realization that he feels like he’s “rotting inside”.
We meet the alternately occurring character of ‘Nick’ who’s serving jail-time for a relatively minor offence. He’s an acutely self-aware individual repulsed by own addictions, fearful of his own history and wary of his appetite for self-destruction. A highly educated personality, longing for a shot at an approximation of personal deliverance, Schmidt’s outlining of Nick’s flawed character appears deliberately sketchy but it quickly becomes apparent he’s using his principals – or recognizable cyphers- to further his overall narrative intent: though this is a cautiously damning indictment of the modern human condition, it is permeated by an uplifting spiritual optimism.
There’s a third voice in the text that makes itself known later in the novel, one that serves to provide some much needed plot clarification adding narratively harmonising exposition, in turn leading the reader to a satisfying coda.
From a critical point of view it would be remiss if this reviewer didn’t pause to point out that, while the story is driven by a triumvirate of narrative perspectives, very often there’s little differentiation between the two characters of Hack and Nick. Often their world-view is readily interchangeable and the language the author uses to delineate their motivation and actions is not sufficiently distinct between them, though, again, given their respective compulsive proclivities this is arguably the author’s intention.
A compelling and furiously paced literary effort that virtually begs the reader to complete it in one sitting, this is the work of an author who writes with such vigour at times, it’s as if his life depended upon it. Schmidt’s deceptively sparse, gratifyingly measured prose calls to mind the best efforts of novelists like Charles Bukowski, Elmore Leonard coupled with the gruesome and metaphor-laden storytelling of a Michael McDowell or John Farris. A page turner of the most distinguished and laudable kind, Schmidt is most definitely an author to watch.
As a post-script I’ll finish this review with an edit from Schmidt’s own online blog which this reviewer sought out after finishing ‘World Of Vacancy’, eager to seek out other works by the writer: “When Cindie, the co-honcho over at my publisher, Lucky Bat Books, read my submission sample she was certain that I was no newbie and had previously published elsewhere. She was wrong.”
Writer Charles Schmidt is a revelation and hopefully ‘World of Vacancy’ is the first in a very long line of books from this guy. Bring them on.