Permanent Press, $28
Meet Arthur Cathcart, a 42-year-old, 40-pounds-overweight freelance market researcher. He is the protagonist of Chris Knopf’s 10th novel, “Dead Anyway.” He describes himself as a “vigorous schlump” and “a Samurai of the Information Age,” though when we first encounter him, he seems more a samurai of snacking, noshing his way through several meals in the first few pages.
Arthur is married to a lovely woman named Florencia and lives contentedly in Stamford, Conn. Florencia owns a successful insurance agency. In the first chapter, Arthur heads out to do some errands (and gobble some ice cream). When he returns he finds his wife in the living room with a man with a gun. The man wants Florencia to answer a few questions he has written down. To demonstrate his urgent intent, he shoots Arthur in the thigh.
“He handed the envelope and a pen to Florencia, who picked the items gingerly out of his hand with her long, elegant fingers. ‘You read it and fill in the blanks. Or I shoot you. I already know one of the answers, so if you like risking your life on one in five odds, go for it.’ ”
Despite the fact that she does precisely as he asks, the man shoots her in the forehead. Then he shoots Arthur in the head as well. Florencia dies, but Arthur somehow survives. Arthur is unconscious for “part of a year.” His sister, Evelyn, realizing that Arthur can identify the killer, puts out for general consumption the disinformation that he is in — and is likely to remain in — a persistent vegetative state. This is not true, but since she realizes that if he regains consciousness he can identify the killer, she thinks it wise to pretend otherwise.
When Arthur returns to consciousness, he is a changed man. He cannot walk very well, he has lost his 40 excess pounds, his “eyes aren’t working as well,” and apparently he has lost his ability to do math, at which he used to be terrific. He falls a lot, misjudges the location of common objects, and has diminished social affect.
“The psychiatrist told me and my sister that my cognitive acuity was remarkably intact, but my social affect, empathy and equanimity factors were nearly immeasurable.”
Arthur decides that the coma story is going to work only temporarily, and a more permanent solution is actually to pretend that he has died. To that end, he uses his computer skills to acquire a new identity. Arthur Cathcart dies and Alex Rimes is born, or at least created. For some reason, though Arthur/Alex is flush with cash from the proceeds of his and his wife’s estate, he decides that the money should be used to purchase a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of rare guitars from a friend of his, which he can use as “a ready source of entirely non-traceable cash” whenever he needs it.
The newly created Alex is now ready to commence a hunt for the killer of his wife, the destroyer of his health and happiness, and, essentially, his own murderer. He packs up some money and decamps from his home. The first thing he does is to locate, online, a retired F.B.I. special agent named Shelly Gross, who was involved in fighting racketeering in Connecticut. He also discovers the name of a reporter for The Connecticut Post named Henry Eichenbach. Both reporter and agent had, at one time, investigated a thug by the name of Sebbie (The Eyeball) Frondutti. Alex sends an e-mail to Eichenbach, “Looking for the Eyeball?”
He meets the reporter and now makes a deal with him: “If you decide to help me [locate Frondutti] . . . your agenda will be advanced in ways that might prove the salvation of your book project. . . . Your knowledge of the world will expand exponentially.” The reporter gives Alex a lead to locate Frondutti and they part ways.
Things start to get pretty complicated from here. On the home front, Bruce, the comptroller of Arthur’s wife’s insurance agency, has told Evelyn that “Damien Brandt’s father, Elliot,” a billionaire investor out of Westport, wants to purchase his wife’s business. He wants to keep all the staff and carry on the business as is in order to buy Damien his job permanently.
Alex tracks down and contacts Frondutti.
“I need information from you,” I said in my Clint Eastwood voice.
“That’s unlikely to happen. I don’t give myself information if I don’t have to.”
“You have to, or suffer terrible consequences.”
Frondutti tells him to fuck off, so Alex begins surveillance on him and his family. Eventually he breaks into Frondutti’s home and, as a tacit threat, leaves a photo he has taken of the man’s daughter on his bed, with the phone number of a disposable cellphone written on the other side. The picture turns out to be of Frondutti’s wife, but it does the trick anyway, and Frondutti calls the number and provides Alex with contact information for five local captains of thuggery, one of whom Alex seems to have reason to believe is the person responsible for his wife’s murder and his ruination.
The trail leads him to a casino where Alex meets, and eventually hooks up with, Natsumi Fitzgerald, a card dealer. She becomes his love interest and his partner in uncovering the culprit, who may be a professional killer who goes by the name of Austin Ott III, or Jason Three Sticks. In order to flush out his killer, Alex must become yet another person, this one a fabulously wealthy precious-metals trader. And to be convincing, he must throw a party and invite the cream of Greenwich society to a party that costs $250,000.
I must admit that I often found the writing in “Dead Anyway” careless. Mr. Knopf writes, “My heart was spinning hard in my chest.” (Really? His heart was “spinning”?) And then a few pages later, “I felt my heart descend into a snarling wall of irredeemable anguish.” (A “snarling wall”?) A character watches someone “with a face that exuded either grudging respect or uncontainable contempt.” A moment later, “in less time than you can think a thought,” a gun is pointed at him, and then, just as he dies, he says, “I hate gettin’ shot.”
Still, the sloppy writing shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. Mr. Knopf tells a good story, with a lot of narrative thrust, and the in-depth details of Arthur/Alex’s scams and Internet researching are well done and often interesting. One definitely wants to get to the end of the novel to find out what happens.
Michael Z. Jody, a regular book reviewer for The Star, is a psychotherapist and couples counselor with offices in Amagansett and New York City.
Chris Knopf has a house in Southampton.