Penny Dreadful

Will Christopher Baer, Author Viking Books $22.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-670-88920-4
In Baer's dark sequel to his first novel, Kiss Me, Judas, there is no moral yardstick, none of traditional noir's submerged longing for redemption, only a violent, Dungeons and Dragons-ish s&m hell. Phineas Poe, enervated, depressed and missing a kidney after misadventures in Texas, is hired by his old Denver police buddy, Moon, to find officer Jimmy Sky, who has vanished. Because neither Poe nor the reader is told of Sky's importance until he is finally located, the tale hangs not on suspense but on sensationalist gore. Poe descends into a twisted world of sadomasochistic goths playing the dangerous ""game of tongues,"" an elaborate predatory pursuit where biting off one's victim's tongue increases the power of the biter within the hierarchical system of players. Incited by the narcotic ""Pale,"" the mostly college-age participants frolic perilously in stygian alleys, assuming fantastic alter egos that eventually threaten their real identities. One player, ""Chrome,"" instead of performing the bloody French kiss that is the game's currency, kills his victims --and that becomes police business. Poe, initiated into the game, resists its seduction, discovers the double lives of his old colleagues and eventually saves his girlfriend. Baer's language is hip, spare, brutal, sometimes gorgeous. Although there are some touching (albeit twisted) relationships, readers will have a hard time identifying with the deranged, damaged characters, since Baer withholds the truth about their lives until the end of the story. But once the game's main trick is revealed, the narrative loses steam. The payoff, however, is the voyeuristic glimpse the novel affords into the imaginary labyrinth inhabited by obsessive, nihilistic gothic gamers. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 02/28/2000
Release date: 03/01/2000
Genre: Fiction
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