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October 22, 2008 |

By Brian Prisco | Books | October 22, 2008 |

What an awesome fucking book. A lot has been said and done in the hired assassin genre, including some downright marvelous material. You pretty much know what you are going to get. Some sort of highly-trained, ex-military wearing a suit, or some sort of wild punk rock maniac who uses a sniper rifle and bullets with little dead Hello-Kitties on it. They go around busting into Eastern bloc hotel rooms, shooting bald former KGB through the head while they read the newspaper wearing a big fluffy bathrobe and sipping a Cognac. Then someone gets a cell phone call and they head back to their homes. One of my favorite movies is Grosse Pointe Blank, which does a wonderful job with the whole notion of the trained killer going to the high school reunion. It humanizes the mercenary, rather than making them another sleek silencer with a briefcase full of guns.

If I had to compare Hit Man to something, it would probably be Martin Blank’s slapsticky adventure, but that would really be doing the story a disservice. It’s more mature than that, a certainly more touching. It’s old school, almost throwing the line back to the days of Bogie and Bacall. Try crossing the sly give and take dialogue of The Big Sleep with the sheer honesty of Martin Blank’s lonely killer and you’re getting closer.

Keller is a killer. That’s what he does. He spends his days in New York, a New York that’s assuredly pre-9/11, that’s floating somewhere in the 90s, but with that sort of disarming charm of the older days. He takes in a movie, he dates, he does crossword puzzles. And every once in a while, he gets a phone call from a house in White Plains where he gets an assignment to travel to somewhere in the US and murder someone.

If this is where the story stayed, merely dealing with Keller going around taking out targets, it would be nothing more than Hitman without the shiny European packaging and the bar code priesthood upbringing. Instead, and what makes the story shine, is that it’s about Keller. It’s about what kind of man decides to be a hitman. And we’re spared the potentially embarrassing coming-of-age whacker-in-training moments that could have occurred. No, Keller’s been doing this a long time, despite being a man of middling years. He’s not a lethal assassin, capable of shooting the wings off of flies. He uses different methods to dispatch his victims as the occasions arise, but as I said, it’s less about the killing and more about the killer.

Keller is a lonely guy. He has failed relationships. He goes to see a shrink, but he can’t really open up. He lives alone, has no family or friends to speak of. He decides to get a dog, who he dotes on. He ponders retirement and a life of stamp collecting. He dreams of potentially moving to Roseburg, Oregon, where he has come to kill a man in the witness protection program. In any other situation, these could easily have fallen into some sort of cliche forest, but the story has a blithe sense of humor and a wonderful rhythm. It never allows itself to get to morose, which adds this wonderful taste of bittersweet to the humor.

The book is broken into chapters which all feel like short stories (and most of which were published as such in Playboy, a resource for Fiction which is greatly overlooked in the name of teen silicon spreads). At times, it’s got this wonderful absurd honesty that smacks of Salinger’s Glass Family, particularly “A Perfect Day for a Bananafish” and “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period.” By nature, Keller is a liar, but it’s almost as if he lies to protect people, maybe from himself, because it covers up a patch of self-doubt and uncertainty. Keller is constantly trying to figure out what he wants out of life. It also helps that he’s doing this while murdering people.

The best portions of the book, aside from his unbelievably touching relationship with his dog Nelson, is his relationship with Dot, the woman who calls him for his assignments. This is the stuff that black and white movie banter lives and breathes. It’s such an amazing back and forth, with this genuine unspoken adoration for one another, that it makes Moneypenny and Bond sound like they’re telling dick jokes. It’s an honest relationship between two smart and tired people, and it’s fucking beautiful. You want Keller to finish his hits, so he can call Dot again and you can hear them converse.

Deep down, Keller is a nice guy, who doubts he’s a scoundrel, and can wear a flower in his lapel with panache. He’s not cocky or pretentious, and he likes a good Mexican meal. He’s a real character, a living breathing character, and Block is so smart to let the story be about the man rather than the actions he does. It’s powerfully enjoyable, and unexpectedly touching, and an extremely fast read.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. You can read more about it, here.

Cannonball Read / Brian Prisco

Books | October 22, 2008 |

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