Find your voice and get your story straight
The Contortionist’s Handbook by Craig Clevenger (2nd reading)

The Contortionist’s Handbook by Craig Clevenger (2nd reading)

God I was looking forward to reading this again.

I don’t know how many years it is since I first read it but my abiding memory was of general originality and awesomeness and a vague recollection of a surprising twist in the tail that I just didn’t see coming, the exact details of which I couldn’t recall.

As a fan of “extreme dude” authors like Chuck Palahniuk, the book more or less sold itself to me with heartfelt dust cover endorsements from Irvine Welsh (see cover artwork above) and Chuck himself…

I swear to God this is the best book I have read in easily five years. Easily. Maybe ten years.

Chuck Palahniuk

And, first time round it didn’t disappoint.

Life has dealt John (Johnny) Dolan Vincent a tough hand. It has also dealt him a left hand with a fully formed sixth finger

Every six months or so he succumbs to excruciating migraine style headaches (“Godsplitters”), which are not recognised as being real by the medical profession, and which therefore inevitably result in him overdosing on whatever painkillers he can lay his hands on.

And here’s the rub.

Johnny is a brilliant forger. He lives behind a series of stolen and concocted identities. He devotes his time between Godsplitters to remaining as anonymous and as far off the various bureaucratic radars as possible whilst he earns money from low key jobs, topped up by providing identity services to the Los Angeles mob. Both literally and metaphorically he seeks to conceal his hand (six fingers is most definitely a handicap for anyone looking to melt into the background).

But each headache induced overdose brings him into contact with the very bureaucratic machinery that he so meticulously looks to avoid – hospitals, medical records, insurance, psychiatric evaluations.

After each overdose – described in graphic, meticulously researched detail – he has to jettison one identity and create another. He’s a narcotic version of Dr Who, regenerating himself as someone new after each near-death experience.

The story joins Johnny in hospital in the aftermath of his most recent overdose. As usual he has to undergo a psychiatric evaluation to ensure that he is not a potential suicide risk before being discharged from hospital.

And the narrative unfolds through his cat and mouse interaction with his evaluator, one Dr Richard Carlisle. We learn about Johnny’s childhood, his descent into criminal activity and his potential salvation through his girlfriend, Keara, the only person in whom he has ever confided his multiple identity secret.

Johnny is as skilled at working the evaluation system as he is at creating false identities.

At the outset he skilfully pulls the right strings and presses the right buttons to present himself as being sane, but not suspiciously so. This is by no means a trivial exercise. Based on childhood experience Johnny knows that the last thing he wants is to be referred indefinitely to a psychiatric institution.

However, Johnny’s mafia associates are not best pleased with his frequent unannounced disappearances and identity changes. As their patience runs out it becomes apparent that his best chances of short term survival lie in the very thing he fears – a psychiatric referral…

And that’s probably enough detail to hopefully whet the appetite without giving too much away.

On second reading this is still a rollicking good read, and a fantastic debut novel.

And the ending is good. Just not the “where-the-fuck-did-that-come-from?” handbrake turn shocker that I vaguely remembered.

If you like Chuck, you’ll probably dig Craig.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.