It’s doubtful you’ll read a novel more bleak, violent and nasty this year than Benjamin Whitmer’s Pike. Also unlikely: that you’ll read anything as starkly evocative and beautifully written. Really, the Nerd is tempted just to leave the review of this motherfucker at that and call it a day. If such a statement does not make you want to pick up Pike I can’t say I know why you read my shit or even why you read noir fiction. But since I’m clearly delusional in thinking that my simple opinion alone is a stamp of quality and because, you know, reviewing shit is what I fucking do, after all, here’s a bit more on the subject.
Pike concerns itself with the actions of a dude named (waddaya know!?) Pike, an old hard man living in the Kentucky Appalachians whose daughter has recently overdosed, leaving Pike to care for her twelve-year-old daughter Wendy. His shady past littered with violence and murder, Wendy might just be his chance to redeem the mistakes he made with his late daughter. But before he can fully commit to Wendy, he has to find out what really happened to her mother, and why corrupt Cincinnati cop Derrick Krieger is so interested in Wendy. So Pike and his best friend, a young barroom boxer named Rory, head to the mean streets of Cincinnati and start rousting hookers and bums, soon putting themselves right in the sights of the murderous Krieger.
The imagery Whitmer evokes in Pike (uh-oh! Professor Pretentious Nerd is poking his head out) is what first struck me about the novel. There landscapes of the Kentucky hills, the slushy streets of downtown Cincinnati, the dingy bars and junkie shooting galleries, all rendered vividly in Whitmer’s harsh, haunting prose. Pages wherein the action is minimal are often nicotine-yellowed with the sad, hazy memories of our protagonists, most of the recollections near operatic in their violence and tragedy. When violence does happen it most often sickens, Whitmer rarely letting the reader’s bloodlust be served in familiarly satisfying ways so much as disgusting, pathetic ones.
Whitmer has given us a Cincinnati that I would love to explore further, its sad world of junkies, bums, prostitutes, war vets, and rednecks brought to life through profane dialogue and grimy character sketches. The story eventually takes on some beats resembling a detective novel, with Rory and Pike hunting down leads and interviewing associates of his dead junkie daughter, but these passages say more about the characters involved and the bleak world they inhabit than they do complicate and twist the novel’s strong, simple narrative.
In many ways Pike is more of a western than a mystery (as most of my favorite crime shit is), though of the Peckinpah/McCarthy variety, no black and white hats so much as a bunch of shit-covered and piss-soaked ones. We watch on in horror as Krieger does unspeakable things, but we understand him all the same, even truly see his place in this grim world and the need for men like him to keep it from descending into further chaos. We want Pike to come out victorious, but when we come to know the shit he has done in his past and witness his measures in the present, it makes it hard to see the difference between he and his enemy. In other words, shit is pretty fucking noir.
Pike is one of those novels that I think we’ll still talk about years from now. I feel like I’m discovering one of Pete Dexter’s early novels or maybe Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers. If you want the chance to say, all hipster-like, that you were into Benjamin Whitmer before he was fucking huge, get yourself a copy of Pike toot-fucking-sweet.