GUEST REVIEWER – Surly Joe
- Title: The Culprits
- Author: Robert Hough
- ISBN: 0307355640 (ISBN13: 9780307355645)
- Series: Stand Alone
- Published: September 11th 2007 by Random House Canada
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Genre/s: Fiction
- Print Length: 320 pages
SYNOPSIS – Hank Wallins is a broken man working the night shift in a meaningless job. Tormented by the tinnitus constantly ringing in his ears, he sleepwalks through life, too scarred by a tragic love affair to try again. When a madman pushes him into the path of an oncoming subway train, this scrape with death re-awakens Hank to the world. Craving a reengagement with passion, he reaches out to a young slightly cross-eyed Russian beauty who he locates on a website. He ventures by plane to meet the lovely and mysterious Anna in her hometown of St. Petersburg.
Anna Verkoskova seeks to flee not only the hopelessness of her economic situation, but also the reminders of her own failed love affair with Ruslan, a womanizing Dagastani rock star look-alike from the Chechen region. Finding no particular reason to dislike the kind, lumbering Hank, she agrees to follow him to Canada. But once she has left Russia behind, she is overwhelmed by homesickness and a dread of disappearing into the grey Toronto winter. Then she receives a frightening note: Ruslan has been kidnapped. She races home immediately, carrying a bag stuffed with cash. Hank’s cash.
Held captive and tortured by the FSB, Ruslan has been crippled by his tormentors and injected with N20, a mysterious CIA-developed serum that fills its victims’ brains with the totality of human knowledge, rendering them insane. Ruslan is traded to Chechen radicals and ransomed. As Anna is now associated with a “rich” Westerner, she is now a target for the ransom. Ruslan’s former political disengagement has been replaced by a new sort of apathy, one that renders him a pawn to whomever has control of the omniscient demons in his ears screaming for blood.
Returned to St. Petersburg and reunited with Ruslan, Anna quickly realizes that her former lover has been lost to her forever, as has her nation. With few options, she returns to the safety of Hank and Canada and discovers that, with her passion for Ruslan faded, she has room for new passions to emerge. But she also carries with her a life-altering secret.
As strange as it may sound, getting hit by the subway was not the worst thing to happen to Hank Wallins, and the fact that he survives, barely, provides him with a motivation that he would not have otherwise experienced. As a lonely middle-aged, night-shift-working computer operator with chronic ringing in his ears, his life isn’t much more than day-to-day drudgery. But a prolonged hospital stay and a chance introduction to FromRussiaWithLove.com changes his direction and leads him to Anna, an email-ordered, catalogue-selected, occasionally-kleptomaniacal companion with a long list of her own problems stemming from her life in Putin-age psychotic Russia. She needs a physical escape, Hank needs an emotional and spiritual escape. Their baggage gets in the way.
The Culprits, by Canadian author Robert Hough, is a brilliantly written and completely engrossing novel that travels from Toronto to Russia and back. The characters are sad, desperate and not particularly likable, and the difficulties they experience are tragic, relentless and often violent. The story is perfectly complicated, told by a mysterious narrator whose identify, once made clear, is head-shakingly original.
If Hank and Anna expected their new life together to be more pleasurable and less difficult, only Fate and The Culprits’ narrator knew differently. For Anna, her new home in Toronto leads quickly to culture shock, home sickness, and an amazingly astute and debatable observation: “The people work too hard, and are boring because of it. They live in nice homes, and watch hockey on television. The cities are clean. The people do not like opera or ballet, and they have no famous writers. They are polite to one another, without ever being friendly. They keep their problems to themselves, and don’t know how to laugh properly.” Hank, in her mind, is a “from-life hider”, perfectly representative of her surroundings. She feels no love for him and has little respect. Yet her position is unwinnable, as a return to Russia means a return to poverty, terrorists, random violence and hopelessness. Hank recognizes her struggles and his insecurities only make matters worse.
These, then, are the culprits of the novel’s title, the motivators that make the story progress. For Hank – boredom, loneliness, disillusionment; for Anna – physical and economic safety and escape from the anarchy of modern-day Russia. Robert Hough takes these ingredients and blends them together into a delectable poisonous stew that is delicious from beginning to end.
“The energy between people is an amoral minefield,” The Culprits’ unnamed narrator says.
Enter The Culprits’ minefield. It’s worth every dangerous step.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I am an unapologetic Torontonian. Like my city, I am hard-working, irreverent to the point of caustic, and honest. I grow misty with nostalgia every time I pass beneath one of those ugly CN railway trestles of my youth. In addition to novel-writing (when Doctor Brinkley’s Tower comes out in February it will be my fourth) I also like film, chess, spelunking, turkmenestani thumb wrestling and babies.
In his own words – Surly Joe is a moderately nondescript Toronto-based white guy who spends too much time contemplating the nature of boredom. His aspirations waver between wanting to be either a professional gambler or a Zen monk, with a touch of writing on the side. After completing university with a degree in a subject that does not readily lead to any sort of viable employment, he wandered through Europe and Northern Africa for a while collecting stories and useless trivia, Circumstance led to a career back in Toronto. He now spends his money on food, friends, wine and annual trips to Las Vegas.