- Henry Holt and Co., 416 pp.
Death in a Watery Place
Joseph Kanon’s summer potboiler is a weak whodunnit set in the seedy splendor of post-war Venice. It makes for an atmospheric ride, but not much more. Kanon, whose dust jacket blurbs offer disturbing comparisons to Graham Greene, will probably need an alibi of his own for some of the deadly dull dialogue, two-dimensional characters and obvious plot twists on display here.
Our protagonist is Adam Miller, a former U.S. soldier and war crimes investigator. While most young American men in 1946 are using their discharges from service to return to the States, Miller is fortunate enough to be rich and even more fortunate to have a mother who has taken up residence in Venice. The ink barely dry on his discharge papers, Adam repairs to the city on the lagoon to…well, we never really get a feeling for what Adam plans to do with himself.
He finds his mother on the brink of re-marriage to a shady physician named Gianni Maglione. The good doctor, like most folks in formerly fascist Italy, has some ‘splainin’ to do about his activities and associations during the war. Adam’s somewhat dim-witted mother hasn’t bothered to inquire into her betrothed’s background and this causes embarrassment all around when Adam learns through his mysterious new girlfriend that Gianni may be a war criminal.
When Gianni retaliates against Claudia, the mysterious new girlfriend, for her public denunciation of him, Adam uses his skills as a combat soldier and war crimes investigator to get someone else to look into the matter while he alternately sulks, beds Claudia and tries to get his mother to call off the marriage. If this sounds like it has elements of Greek drama in it, don’t get your hopes up.
Let me stop right there and offer a few complaints. First of all, why do people in novels of this sort have to be wealthy and good-looking? Alibi actually provides some interesting insight into the plight of the Venetian upper class, who lead lives of Emersonian quiet desperation. But it squanders this insight by offering up boiler-plate rich American expatriates who could have come directly from your local dinner theater’s murder mystery. The idea should be that the central character experiences adversity that leads to inner growth. Making that character rich cheapens whatever cathartic payoff we’re expecting from his encounter with circumstance down the line.
Second, did Kanon bother to read aloud the dialogue he wrote? He has a gift for penning flattening, dead dialogue that reminds one of the aforementioned community dinner theater murder mystery. Allow me to demonstrate:
“Are you crazy?” Claudia said.
“Maybe. But this way we know everything they’re doing.”
“Help them. What are you going to do? Help them catch us?”
“The closer I get, the more they look somewhere else. I’m making them look somewhere else.”
“No, digging a grave. Two. Not just yours”
The problem with this boring back-and-forth is that in places it goes on for pages, is grossly overused to advance the plot and obscures the inner lives of the novel’s characters.
It’s a wonder that the dust jacket doesn’t extol Kanon as a worthy heir to Beckett. Which in a way may not be too far off since Kanon’s characters, like Beckett’s, spend obscene amounts of time not doing anything. This is especially true in Adam’s case. You’d think that a man who had fought his way across Europe and ferreted out Nazi war criminals would be a two-fisted, shoot-from-the-hip hero. Instead, we get talk, talk, talk and more talk and none of it particularly interesting. And it’s symptomatic of the novel’s reluctance to take chances with its plot. Adam’s passivity, if you can bring yourself to care enough about him at all, is infuriating.
Third, must Venice suffer for the sins of the author? It would be hard not to lean heavily on Venice’s unique atmosphere when writing a novel set in the city. After all, A Death in Milwaukee doesn’t carry the same connotations of decay, decline and inevitable return to a state of nature. Kanon runs hog-wild here, however, and, at times, you feel like you’re on one of those package tours where the guide is trying to chivvy you along to see all the sights in town in two or three hours. There are times when you are reading this novel that you will wish you had kept a good tour guide of Venice by your side so you can learn a little bit about the names and snippets of history that Kanon reels out like grass seed.
Alibi may turn out to be a far more pleasant experience for you than it was for me. It’s adequate for light summer reading at the beach. As literature, however, it is a child of wretched excess and an exercise in banality, something you would think impossible given its setting along the canals of Venice.