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Payback time

The Interloper A Novel Antoine Wilson Handsel Books: 260 pp., $13.95 paper

May 13, 2007|Jess Walter | Jess Walter was a 2006 National Book Award finalist for "The Zero" and winner of the 2006 Edgar Award for best novel for "Citizen Vince."

OH, what thrilling dread, falling in with a character as twisted as the narrator of Antoine Wilson's terrific first novel, "The Interloper." It's like leaving a party with a designated driver, only to discover as you swerve down the driveway that your new friend is drunker than you are. Or worse, completely insane.

Your sketchy guide in "The Interloper" is Owen Patterson, an unexceptional writer of software manuals -- a "solid B," he calls himself -- whose marriage to the lovely Patty is only weeks old when Patty's brother C.J. is murdered.

While Patty and her family obsess over the loss, Owen convinces himself that his marriage has been ruined by injustice. The killer, Henry Joseph Raven, got only 20-some years, and in Owen's eyes, this is destroying his family. His sex life is bad. His in-laws are morose. His wife is encased in mourning black. Is it any wonder that Owen begins to feel some deep need to "unpoison the soil"?

Screwball plan ensues: Owen will secretly pose as an attractive, lonely woman, write letters to Raven in prison, get Raven to fall in love with the phony woman he's created, and then have her cruelly dump him. Take that, ruthless killer!

A contributing editor for the fine literary magazine A Public Space, Wilson writes a clean, restrained line that works well for the setup and for the creeping fun that follows: a manic, darkly comic descent into delusional obsession.

There is no shortage of clues from the outset that Owen is a little off, starting with the fact that he seems actually to believe that breaking the heart of a murderer will somehow "balance the scales of justice." As he's creating the woman who will woo Raven via the mail, Owen recalls his own first love, an older cousin who initiated him into sex and later died of a drug overdose. Owen samples her personality for these letters and even goes so far as to digitally superimpose this dead lover-cousin's face onto various female bodies in an effort to strike the perfect note of sexuality and neediness that would interest a lonely, incarcerated killer.

At this point, "The Interloper" becomes largely epistolary, as Wilson offers a pitch-perfect correspondence between the meek but decent "Lily" and the cruel but sensitive Raven. Owen steals the journal of his murdered brother-in-law, and as we read the entries and the letters, it's striking how fully Wilson can channel these characters through their writing. In fact, the invented Lily threatens to become the most real of all the people -- for Owen and for the reader.

One might even begin to suspect Wilson of having wry postmodern intentions; perhaps a commentary on the novelist as sick ventriloquist, obsessive and more than a little weird. "I had to become Lily when I wrote," Owen tells us, "and even more so when I read." But Wilson's firm handle on his protagonist keeps any such abstraction at bay, and his story staggers cheerily from crime to satire to psychological study.

Orphaned by a mother who died and a father who drifted off, Owen is a cross-wired mess. Hard to say when you become aware of his complete unreliability -- perhaps it's when (in an effort to think more like a seductive woman) he plays an awkward game of Frisbee with his wife while wearing the thong underwear he's recently stolen from her dresser. With his character Owen Patterson, Wilson seems to be nodding askew to the great James M. Cain losers who narrated their own sad tumbles from death row or a drifting ship. But Cain's sinners were driven by department-store lust and greed (and undone by the same) and keen enough to register the proper regret and self-loathing. Owen's bent personality comes from a deeper, more delusional and disturbing source. He actually believes what he's doing is right. And that it will work. And so he hums along like a cross between Dostoevsky's brooding Raskolnikov and Camus' maddeningly rational Meursault, overheated and illogical and, of course, doomed.

"It's the noblest mistake to see humanity in everyone," Owen says late in the game, and this goes for the reader as well. And if, in the last few chapters, Wilson whiffs on plot twists that come too fast and too conveniently, you're hooked enough by then to give him one. Or two. Anyway, you couldn't quit even if you wanted to, because Owen is at the wheel and you're just along for the ride, your hands gripping the dashboard as you careen toward that last hairpin turn.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

From 'The Interloper'

Lily would have to seem as alive as me or you if I wanted to have any chance of pulling this off. Every decision along the way would require increasing attention to consistency. I couldn't play at being Lily. The goal of a consistent Lily didn't seem insurmountable, except in one respect. Appearance. Raven would ask for more photographs.

He would ask for more photographs, sexier photographs, indoor, outdoor, everywhere photographs. The only photo he'd gotten already had been a one-off. I hadn't thought about having to replicate her over and over again.

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