Books Derailed


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by James Siegel

First published: USA 2003

Original language: English

This guy called Widdoes is teaching two nights creative writing at Attica State Prison in between teaching days at the local High. He sets his culturally diverse class a task to write something about themselves. Along with the predictable vents berating the justice system for incarcerating the innocent author-cons, one story is very, very different…

The slick and professionally presented story has a highly promising Hitchcockian start: caught short commuting into work on the 9.05 from Babylon to Penn Station without ticket or wallet, New York advertising exec Charles Shine is saved from embarrassment when drop-dead-gorgeous Lucinda - thighs swishing together the other side of his sports page - pays his fare: at that moment, Charles is ‘clearly and spectacularly derailed’.

As night follows day, the reasonably happily/boringly married Charles, father of one teenage daughter with a remarkably rare blood sugar disease, gets besotted up with the lovely Lucinda, who, albeit equally married and doting a mother herself, reciprocates his timidly passionate advances, sexed-up to the gills by his dry and wry one-liners.

In the background, like the chorus of a Greek tragedy, Charlie’s career tips over a mid-life cusp as he’s downsized from the glitzy credit card account that has brought him a mountain of glittering prizes over the ten years he’s creamed his ego on it (deaf through hubris to his client’s inane suggestions) to be humiliatingly weighed-off with an aspirin commercial, a genre recognised as the pits in Charlie’s dog-eat-dog world. But what does he care? - the thing with Lucinda’s getting hotter and hotter, the mercury rising from lunch through cocktails to dinners and clubs, until threatening to break the glass when he gets the longed-for date for breakfast nookie, in the pre-booked consummation ground of Room 1207 in sleazy downtown Fairfax Hotel

Okay, cool. Even maybe, wow. For although Charles is genetic light years from the kind of hard-boiled, moody ne’er-do-wells who once illuminated the scary shadows of American sex’n’murder story time - like, in the landscape of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Pickup on South Street, Black Angel, Kiss Me Deadly, Double Indemnity…- being at the outset a testosterone-challenged, uxorious ,carol-singing, undrunk-driving, non-smoking, timidly voyeuristic, wet-behind-the-ears, new man human, daughter-doting, all-American regular worker bee wimp, at least that leaves him plenty of room for serious growth when the shit eventually hits the fan.

And it does. And again. And again. And maybe three or five times more. It never stops. What looked as though it might be a tight, one-strand, close-up story about a man and a woman and mutual destruction turns instead into a Job’s chronicle of bummer piled on bummer, way beyond anything believable, and in an unfortunate kind of way, ultimately rather shallow and, erm, just a little bit silly.

True, you can’t always know what’s going to happen next in Charlie’s unrelenting run-in with pain and suffering and disaster, but that’s simply because what happens next comes right out of nowhere, entirely disconnected to anything that came before.

What I did quite like about Derailed was its almost total removal from the distractions of any obtrusive period or zeitgeist - although there is the very occasional reference to products or TV shows or whatever that belong to the world of now, for the most part the story takes place in a kind of timeless American void - even New York hardly impinges, it could be anywhere, and that doesn’t happen too often.. This strangely abstract atmosphere served to concentrate the attention on the characters and the things done to them, in what felt like a detached, distanced manner that was possibly as noir as a West Yorkshire miner’s jock strap after a long day at the coalface, before Margaret ‘MuthaMarka’ Thatcher put an end to his type for good..

Derailed is James Siegel’s first novel (he’s got a good name, hasn’t he?), and if - as the first 30 or 40 pages promised - it had turned out to be a blinder, as first novels quite often will, I was looking forward to a long and mutually beneficial relationship between me and Mr Siegel, not to mention the social kudos that’s achievable from finding someone no-one’s heard of before everyone’s heard of them. As it is, it might well be JS goes on to bigger and greater things - he’s certainly not a bad writer, and he seems to espouse the sentimental nuclear-family morality and Patriot Act ethical insularity that are all the rage in American crime writing at the moment - viz. Harlan Coben, Patricia Cornwall, Dan Brown (aaarrrgggghhhhh…) and innumerable other brand-name dealers in sanitized heroes and heroines who help to drool away our empty hours, in return for extraordinary financial reward. I think I’ll take a rain check the next time, however. Time’s running out, after all.

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Rated 3 Stars - an acceptable waste of your time, just by Iain Stewart on January 21, 2005

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