Gory work makes for good story

January 28, 2009 12:01:13 PM PST
"The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death" by Charlie Huston. There are mysteries that are not for the faint of heart. Charlie Houston's latest is not for the faint of stomach.

"The Mystic Arts of Erasing all Signs of Death" is the grittiest - and funniest - of mysteries. Firmly in the pulp tradition, darkness and danger are always threatening Web Goodhue, the book's hero.

Web, once a dedicated elementary school teacher, has become an unemployed slacker because of a tragedy that befell him teaching.

His caustic attitude has cost him most of his friends. The one exception is Chev, a tattoo parlor operator and friend from childhood with whom Web lives and occasionally helps out. But even Chev is on the edge of kicking Web out.

Then Po Sin, a "huge, round" Chinese American, comes to Web's rescue. Po Sin has a job for a guy with a strong stomach with his company, Clean Team.

Clean Team is a different kind of cleaning service: It removes the mess left behind by death - murder, suicide or just natural causes that go undiscovered for a while. The blood, brains, bone and body fluids are all part of a day's work.

Web, who initially thinks he will ditch the job, discovers he actually finds the work satisfying, despite the macabre nature of the business.

"The roaches swarmed me. So I freaked a little. A couple of hundred cockroaches come spilling out of the ... nooks and crannies of a dead shut-in's festering den and start racing each other up your legs to see which can be the first to crawl into your facial orifices and see if you don't freak."

The book is filled with interesting characters - Gabe, the silent man who works for Clean Team; Dingband, Po Sin's nephew; Web's mother Theodora, who grows her own marijuana and bakes pies at her Wild Blackberry Pie Farm in Oregon; Web's father, L.L. Crows, once a successful Hollywood script doctor.

Web meets the woman of his dreams, Soledad, while cleaning up after her father's bizarre suicide. And through Soledad, he meets her half brother, Jamie, a self-styled movie producer, trying to sign up some 13-year-olds who "had a top-ten most-viewed clip on YouTube for over a week."

Jamie is in deep trouble - he has hijacked a truckload of almonds, and the criminal owners are threatening to kill everyone, including Web and Soledad, unless they get the loot back.

In between all these goings-on, there is bad blood between Clean Team and its rival, Aftershock Trauma, which quickly turns violent. And, of course, there is the trouble that made teaching, and riding a bus, impossible for Web.

Fast paced and at times screamingly funny, "The Mystic Arts ...," won't be to everyone's taste, but for those who like black humor and offbeat stories, it's top rate.