Queens, New York: 1964. In the small hours, Katrina Marino heads home from her job as night manager of a sports bar. In the courtyard of her apartment, she is attacked and stabbed by a man who has followed her. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of several other apartments in the block are awake. and going through their own personal dramas. Over the course of three hours, relationships are forged, broken, and re-negotiated — but no one comes to Katrina’s aid, even though they heard her screams and saw what was happening. No one even calls the police, assuming that someone else would have already done so. The outcome, of course, is that Katrina dies from her injuries.
Though not a fictionalised account as such, Acts of Violence takes as its inspiration a real-life incident: the murder of Kitty Genovese, to which there were reportedly (the details have been contested), 38 eyewitnesses, none of whom did anything to help. Ryan David Jahn‘s first novel is a portrait of what such a situation might be like.
I use the word ‘portrait’ deliberately there, because I think it’s important to be clear what Acts of Violence is and is not. It’s not about the narrative, not in the usual way; it’s not a question of tension over whether Katrina lives or dies, and no mystery is solved. Rather, this is a snapshot of a few hours in the lives of a number of people, with Katrina’s attack in the background (sometimes literally) of all.
Good characterisation is of course vital in a novel like this, but it’s even more so when the cast is so large (at least eight viewpoint characters). So it’s a pleasure to report that Jahn proves adept at drawing convincing characters in relatively few words. Here, for example, is Diane Myers, studying her reflection in the window while she ruminates on the passage of time:
Is her ghost happier than she is? Being disembodied but still conscious would have its advantages. Walls and locked doors could no longer stop you. No more back pain or neck aches. No more miscarriages with names.
Or Thomas Marlowe, an ex-soldier with thoughts of suicide:
He pulls the gun away from his head and sets it on the coffee table. He wonders who first called a coffee table a coffee table. He gets to his feet and walks into the hallway. He wonders who first called it a hallway. He wonders who first named anything. How did someone look at a dog and decide what to call it? It’s all so random. Everything is so goddam random.
This is not the only way in which Jahn is a skilled wordsmith. He builds tension efficiently when it’s needed; and not the cheap-thrills kind, but a more real tension. And, though naturally there is violence, and Jahn does not flinch from describing it, his treatment is sensitive, bringing home the brutality without tipping over into gratuitousness.
However, there are flaws in Acts of Violence, and I think they arise primarily because the parameters of the novel limit its possibilities. Perhaps inevitably, some of the story threads feel less well developed than others; for example, there’s one concerning a pair of wife-swapping couples where I feel the background could have done with being sketched in a little more.
Another problem is that Katrina’s murder doesn’t feel as much like the linchpin of the novel as is presumably intended. In the case of the paramedic David White, who’s faced with the dilemma of being expected to save a patient he’d happily let die (the teacher who sexually abused him as a child), it’s clear to see how Katrina’s dying on his watch affects him. But, for most of the characters, if there are psychological repercussions from Katrina’s murder, we don’t really see them – the timeframe of the novel is too short for us to see them. This makes Acts of Violence less satisfying as a complete piece.
Yet there is much to like and admire here all the same. Jahn gives a good sense of the milieu beyond his immediate focus. I’m not in a position to know how far his depiction of the 1960s reflects reality; but I can well believe that, for example, an interracial couple would have faced the same prejudice and difficulties that Frank and Erin Riva do in the novel. I would hope that the unspeakably corrupt cop Alan Kees and his Captain are not representative of the police at that time; but I’d also hope that a group of witnesses to an attack wouldn’t stand idly by and let it happen. Perhaps the key question is not whether something is likely, but whether it is possible.
As the book’s title may suggest, Jahn also shows some of the many reasons – malevolent or benign, comprehensible or not – people may have for committing violent acts. I do have a sense that the novel doesn’t leave enough room to truly explore all the issues it raises; but, as a portrait – as a début – Acts of Violence is a fine piece of work.
8th November 2009 at 9:27 pm
This sounds like an intriguing premise for a novel. I’m glad you mentioned that “some of the story threads feel less well developed than others” because I did wonder how it would work to have so many different characters convey their impressions of the same event. All the same, I’ll add this one to the wishlist.
9th November 2009 at 1:01 pm
Hi Kim, and thanks for your comment.
I did wonder how it would work to have so many different characters convey their impressions of the same event.
It doesn’t really happen that way. It’s more that the characters are so involved in their personal dramas that Katrina’s screams come as something of an interruption — and nobody wants to take responsibility for helping her.
I think it’s definitely a book worth reading; it doesn’t quite get to where I think it wants to be, but it’s not far off.
9th November 2009 at 1:44 pm
David, I think I liked this book more than you and it struck the right balance for me. Re the 1960s: I was but a young child then, but I do think he got it right. I certainly remember a glut of TV and film in the 70s that concentrated on corrupt police in the US. And while the 60s was the era of free love etc., prejudice was still there in force. It’s good to note that the western world has changed so much, but unfortunately I believe we still have the tendency for the “bystander effect”. Perhaps more so in the UK these days where the laws don’t seem to applied adequately or with sufficient respect to victims.
9th November 2009 at 3:54 pm
Hi Rhian, I think you’re right that we still have the “bystander effect” — which, with hindisght, I really should have made clear in the review.
On the police corruption aspect, I think it’s a very effective moment in the book when it looks as though the captain is about to stand up for what’s right — and then finds a way of just looking after his own.