Pike by Benjamin Whitmer – review

Pike benjamin whitmerWhen reading the novel Pike by Benjamin Whitmer, the words you want to remember are “inevitable” and “relentless.”

The eponymous Pike is an old hard boy living in the wind-scarred lands of Kentucky. He gets word that his estranged daughter OD’d under suspicious circumstances, leaving her 12-year old daughter Wendy in his stead. In Wendy, there is the flickering possibility of Pike’s redemption, if someone like Pike can actually be redeemed. Put it this way: I’d throw even money on him and the Saint of Killers. Before this redemption can be explored, though, Derrick Kreiger, a racist, corrupt, killer cop drifts into town, dragging an untoward interest in Wendy with him. Together with his best friend Rory, a bar-room pug with aspirations for bigger rings and brighter lights, Pike sets off to Cincinnati to find what really happened to his daughter, and what’s at the root of Derrick’s obsession with Wendy.

Back to inevitability. Imagine Postman, but with a heavy Appalachian vibe, and written on a Underwood forged from the melted revolver of every cut-throat cheat on the east side of Hell. If you can’t feel the grit and ash scrape your face when you wipe away the sweat then put down the book because you’re not reading it right. The three main characters of Pike are bad men doing bad things, no doubt, but condemning their actions is like slaughtering a shark for eating a surfer: They ask for no absolution because they act only in ways that are natural. Pike, Rory and Derrick whirl around each other in a cycle of violence so precariously balanced that losing one will throw the others off on a wholly different path of destruction. But that other destruction, that would be unwarranted. There’s some weird kind of bleak existentialism here. Each of them operates within the context of violence simply as a way of being. Pike best exemplifies this when discussing the constitution of self-made men, saying that he “never knew anyone who fucked up their life good who didn’t think they were special. The holes they dug themselves into were exactly the shape of their dreams.” These brief respites into noir philosophy makes the characters tactile and familiar, which makes their actions all the more horrifying.

Weapons, blood and violence are pretty much required in noir, and Pike has them in spades. What really impressed me, though, is how they were used. Any chump with a piece can drop a body, but, to me, the method of killing is very specific. Each death is more than just murder: It’s an extension of character, a way to sculpt the depravity and animalistic impulses of the characters. There’s a scene with a crossbow that I won’t discuss, but goddamn does it give me chills thinking about it. All of this relentless violence brings up another question: Is there room for redemption? Rather than the pedantic and boring conversation of what constitutes noir, I think this falls more on the morality side. How many wrongs can a man commit before being damned? Is it dependent on frequency, or savagery? All three men have their fair share of bad juju trailing them–Pike especially–but I kept feeling that there was ultimately some scaled version of justice traipsing the shadows’ edges. Again, discussing this at length requires a bunch of spoilers, but suffice it to say that Pike ranks up there with Dermaphoria in best endings because it shines new light on the typical “noir” conclusion. It’s damn unsettling, even two weeks after I first read it.

There are a metric shit-ton of superlatives I could attach to this novel, but I think The Nerd had it right in saying that we’ll be talking about Pike years from now. I’d throw in one other thing, though. They say that great work begets great work, and this is a book I read not only with pen in hand to scribble in the margins, but also with my notebook beside me. Pike so inspired me that I must’ve written half a dozen pages of notes, just hoping to keep up with the lean, mean, nasty-ass poetry of Whitmer’s prose.

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Nik Korpon

Nik Korpon is the author of STAY GOD, OLD GHOSTS, BY THE NAILS OF THE WARPRIEST and BALTIMORE STORIES: VOLUMES ONE and TWO. His stories have bloodied the pages and screens of Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey, 3:AM, Out of the Gutter, Everyday Genius, Speedloader, Warmed&Bound and a bunch more. He is an editor for Dirty Noir and Rotten Leaves, and reviews books for Spinetingler, NoirJournal and The Nervous Breakdown. He also co-hosts LAST SUNDAY, LAST RITES, a monthly reading series. He lives in Baltimore.

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About Nik Korpon

Nik Korpon is the author of STAY GOD, OLD GHOSTS, BY THE NAILS OF THE WARPRIEST and BALTIMORE STORIES: VOLUMES ONE and TWO. His stories have bloodied the pages and screens of Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey, 3:AM, Out of the Gutter, Everyday Genius, Speedloader, Warmed&Bound and a bunch more. He is an editor for Dirty Noir and Rotten Leaves, and reviews books for Spinetingler, NoirJournal and The Nervous Breakdown. He also co-hosts LAST SUNDAY, LAST RITES, a monthly reading series. He lives in Baltimore.

2 Replies to “Pike by Benjamin Whitmer – review”

  1. Yes, I agree, the poetry of Whitmer’s prose is something to be admired. I found myself re-reading passages just to savour them again.