Lamentation by Joe Clifford
One of the more abused words in the English language is “simple”. I suppose most people take it to mean uncomplicated or, in a slightly less forgiving sense, plain which is one of these ambiguous words. Yet once you start thinking about the range of connotational meanings, it becomes obvious just how complicated the word “simple” can be. At one end of the spectrum, there’s the high praise of lucidity and transparency. We value material that’s intelligible or accessible. Yet the same qualities of simplicity can be described as facile and superficial. A person described as simple is not fully mentally competent.
So when I label Lamentation by Joe Clifford (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) as a deceptively simple book, you have to wait for clarification of precisely what I mean. This is a first person narrative featuring Jay, a man who’s quite intelligent but, for various reasons, prefers a life without full engagement and relationships without full commitment. This makes him a frustrating person who makes a few dollars here and there working at the coalface end of the antiques business. He’s one of these people who works properties that fall vacant when the owner dies and there’s no one immediately available to claim title to the contents. He strips the place of anything of value and passes them on to the trade. As winter takes a grip in the northern reaches of New Hampshire, he finishes his last job for the year and has a lean period to look forward to. This financial bind is more more extreme because he has a son and pays whatever he can to his ex to help look after him.
This hand-to-mouth life is disrupted when the police call. Chris, his junky brother, is in trouble yet again. Except this time, it seems more serious. When the brothers briefly meet up, there’s the same paranoia and bullshit. The next morning, Jay wakes up to find Chris has gone. Then it’s suddenly more serious. A man who was in a loose business relationship with Chris is found dead. Now the police are more determined to find Chris, and Jay gets sucked into looking for him. To say these efforts are amateurish and ineffective is high praise for someone like Jay. This is not something he’s ever really thought about before and, since he’s not overly fond of his brother, he finds the entire experience makes him increasingly angry. When he could be spending time with his son (and ex), he’s suddenly experiencing the possibility of being beaten up, closely followed by actually being knocked unconscious and having his apartment tossed.
At first, I confess this was not very exciting. I had little or no interest in our first-person protagonist and the basic situation seemed rather obvious. Except it winds up into a very unexpected climax of considerable emotional power. So what was initially, and even in retrospect, a pretty simple, by-the-numbers plot with a resolution we’ve seen before, turns out to be a genuine success. Despite all my forebodings, this simple little thing proved to be a real big hitter.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.