The Contortionist’s Handbook – Craig Clevenger

The protagonist of The Contortionist’s Handbook, John Dolan Vincent, Jr., began life as an abnormally gifted child, in a chaotic and violent blue-collar household. His puny size and his remarkable, fully-formed sixth digit on one hand have contributed to Vincent’s warped sense of himself as a marginalized outsider. Mistakenly placed in Special Ed classes, Vincent has an overriding fear of coming to the attention of any authority—the police, lawyers, doctors, but above all, psychiatric doctors. He is willing to go to any length to avoid them.

Vincent draws upon his idiot-savant-like talents to avoid detection by the authorities—he becomes a master of sideshow sleight-of-hand tricks, of hand-forging documents, of the chemistry which will bear out the illusion his forgeries are real. Unfortunately, he also has a pronounced migraine disorder, the pain from which is so great that he medicates himself into oblivion. It is unclear whether such self-medication is, in fact, a way for Vincent to cloak from himself the knowledge of his suicide attempts.

Thus begins his entrance into the noir maze of contemporary Los Angeles. Vincent prowls the underground streets as an invisible man—invisible primarily to himself. Underground LA is haunted, and the reader is ambushed by the ghosts of Dashiell Hammet, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson, and others as we follow Vincent through his self-created maze.

Vincent, the contortionist, has made a career of changing his identity after each migraine attack leaves him in the hands of the authorities. Unlike a Kafka protagonist, Vincent is a master of manipulating bureaucracies, exploiting the weaknesses in their systems, slipping through the cracks. He is also a masterful reader of the character of authority figures, which allows him to shift roles seamlessly and play to the personal foibles of any given authority figure—again, to allow himself to slip invisibly from their control. Locked into this peculiar folie � deux, Vincent perfectly mirrors the world of power, reflecting back only what he knows they wish to see.

Vincent’s blindness to himself is mirrored in Rasputin, the cat a girlfriend of his had rescued after it was hit and left deeply damaged. Rasputin’s large, unseeing eyes, the preternatural charisma of the cat’s insane namesake, the cat’s distress when too many people are present create but one of the doubling effects laced throughout this novel.

Craig Clevenger reveals himself through his first novel, The Contortionist’s Handbook, to be an abnormally gifted writer—with an remarkable power to spin narrative. He has an inordinate ability to create suspense out of accruing details. Clevenger’s rich vision of being down-and-out reverberates with Michael Chabon’s vision of 1930s New York in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

Clevenger’s knowledge of literary terrain is breath-taking and helps make The Contortionist’s Handbook a very satisfying read. The good news is Clevenger is busy working on a second novel. And, who knows, maybe John Dolan Vincent will appear again somewhere down the road.

Les Wright

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