Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Fat Man by Ken Harmon

What would it be like if Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler wrote a Christmas story? For one thing, there would be a hard-boiled protagonist who is somewhat soured on life, but who is also teachable and perhaps more soft-hearted than he is willing to admit. There would be a beautiful dame who makes the protagonist’s heart skip a beat AND complicates his life more than a little. There would be an unlikely but powerful enemy who comes close to snuffing out the protagonist. There would be a dim-witted but genuinely helpful sidekick, perhaps. And most of all, there would be the pleasure of a story that jumps in a pile of figurative and imaginative language and rolls around and around, just for the sheer pleasure of it.

Well, if all of this sounds like a list of ingredients you would like to have as part of a Christmas story, then look no further. The Fat Man: A Tale of North Pole Noir by Ken Harmon is the book for you. And it’s thoroughly well done and enjoyable, to boot.

The protagonist, Gumdrop Coal, is Santa’s elf in charge of the so-called “Coal Patrol,” the elves that take care of Santa’s dirty work in handing out coal to the kids on the naughty list. He’s good at what he does, but he ultimately does it out of a ill-tempered desire to see kids get what they deserve. So it’s not long before kinder, gentler elves (but ones with ulterior motives, it seems) catch the ear of Santa and convince him that Gumdrop’s approach is all wrong. The Coal Patrol is disbanded, and Gumdrop is out on his ear. He decides to go rogue and show the parents of the naughty kids a little elf discipline, reasoning that they are really the source of the naughtiness. In fact, he knows that some of them were the ones he gave coal to as children, and they eventually grew up to be parents who couldn’t control their children in turn. The only problem with this plan is that one of the parents who is on Gumdrop’s figurative “hit list,” Raymond Hall,  is actually killed under mysterious circumstances, and Gumdrop is framed for the murder. This sets into motion the main events of the novel, as Gumdrop tries to clear his name and find out who really is behind the murder. Along the way, Gumdrop saves Santa from an untimely death, and figures out the true meaning of Christmas and giving (of course).

This all seems extremely fanciful and whimsical, and the author’s treatment of the story does not disappoint in keeping the reader smiling at all of the Christmas references woven throughout the story. For one thing, the title of each chapter is a snippet from a Christmas song or story -- “I’m Telling You Why,” “Stink, Stank, Stunk,” “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies,” and “I Really Can’t Stay” are just a few of the titles. In fact, one of the more fascinating parts of reading this novel was trying to identify the source of each chapter title; some of them are vaguely familiar but not exactly obvious, so you may have to search your memory to identify all of them. (In fact, can you identify the sources of the ones I listed here? Please take a stab at it in the comments!)

Another element of the novel that was tremendously fun was the way the author wove all the various characters associated with Christmas into the narrative. For example, Kringle Town is where Santa and the elves and all of the “good” Christmas characters live. But across the river is a darker, more hopeless town called Potterville (after Old Man Potter who is one of the central characters of “It’s a Wonderful Life”), and Gumdrop eventually has to venture there to track down the individuals behind the nefarious plot against Santa. And other characters make their appearance in the story as well. The gun that kills Raymond Hall is a BB gun that belongs to Ralphie, the main character of “A Christmas Story,” and -- you guessed it -- Hall is killed by having his eye shot out.

The Island of Misfit Toys from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” makes an appearance, and Gumdrop gets there on a boat piloted by Tiny Tim (of Dickens fame). There are so many references to characters scattered throughout the book that it becomes quite amusing just seeing what the author will come up with next. The various people and animals that populate the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” even play a role in the story, although in a much more ominous way.

And of course, the entire novel is written in the style of Hammett and Chandler, with all of the imaginative hard-boiled language, first-person POV, and snappy dialogue that go with that style. Take, for example, the opening paragraph of the first chapter (entitled “Nutcracker”):

The straight dope is that you don’t want to get on the Naughty List. It’s my job to make sure you don’t want your moniker anywhere near it. And brother, I like my job. I like it a lot. If you decide to pout, shout and cry, I’ll tattoo your mug with a rock that leaves a mark and stings all winter long. Lip off to parents and teachers, and I’m the one coming down the chimney, loaded for bear. Go ahead and roll the dice with lying, cheating, and pitching hissy fits. I’ll be there Christmas Eve to make sure you take your lumps. Of coal.

This novel is a real tour-de-force and it was an absolutely wonderful read for this time of year. I highly recommend it.

No comments:

Post a Comment