22 October 1999

Kidney Stoning

We all have different ways of demonstrating tenderness or affection. "If you want to live, call 911," that's what Jude, the alluring black widow antagonist of "Kiss Me, Judas"" leaves in a note for hardluck ex-cop Phineas Poe. That's right after getting him drunk, fucking him madly, drugging him, then stealing one of his kidneys. And wouldn't you know, this all-too-modern girl has an even softer spot for Poe once he hunts her down. Will Christopher Baer's elegantly-plotted debut novel is being sold as a Raymond Chandler-like thriller, but his language ranges from the carborundum precision of Hammett to the phrases of fancy of any number of good poets. A stale sickness hangs over the neediness of these characters yet we know these colorful post-Hiassen freakazoids: Baer makes them as real as your saddest friend.

The velocity of 32-year-old native Tennessean's tale winds up in some feverish wonderland akin to the family home of the killers in "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," but Baer cuts a wonderful pattern on the twisty path toward his slow fade out. Staggering through a snowy Denver, his guts held inside by a few artfully slapped-up staples, Poe muses on love and longing and his own sad life. "A part of me still sleeps beside her," he thinks, "twitching and bloody in a cooler meant for soft drinks." Poe is a romantic and a pragmatic; he wants back that piece of himself and a few more pieces of Jude. "She's taking my kidney to Las Vegas. She's going to trade it to the devil for a record contract. I will find her. I will come to her dressing room with champagne and chocolates and I will kill her." Or will he? Love is murder meant for two. Showy without ever growing truly showoffy, Baer's stylish prose lacks for neither wit nor precision, and is often explosively funny. I read "Kiss Me, Judas" with a flush, anxious to finish, ready to start reading all over again.

Kiss Me, Judas
Will Christopher Baer
Viking, $21.95
222 pages

[Newcity, 22 October 1998]