A review of North of Sunset by Henry Baum

This is an immensely enjoyable (at least, for those of us who have long ago heeded Bart Simpson’s wise advice: “If you don’t watch the violence, you’ll never get desensitized to it!”) novel that is successful both as a suspenseful, engrossing thriller and as something more: a savage satire on aspects of modern American life in the vein of DeLillo‘s White Noise. 

Reviewed by Paul Kane

North of Sunset
By Henry Baum
LuLu Press
Paperback: 280 pages
February 28, 2006, ISBN: 1411656563

If it is correct to describe celebrity, in John Updike’s words, as “a mask that eats into the face”, then it is appropriate also to characterize this novel, Henry Baum’s second, as a forensic examination of the disfigurement that it leaves in its wake. North of Sunset is a compelling thriller that is concerned with the cost and consequences of celebrity, and its many guises.

The story centres on the relationship between two characters: Michael Sennet, the most famous movie actor on the planet, and the Vanity Plate Killer, a serial killer who has his own appreciative public. When Michael kills a blackmailer, he makes a desperate attempt to disguise it as the work of the serial killer. Naturally enough, this ires the Vanity Plate Killer; he doesn’t take kindly to a copycat spoiling his shot at immortality. So the scene is set for a collision, and eventual collusion, between the two men. For, make no mistake, the two are alike: alienated from the everyday, both “had forgotten what it was to be human”. North of Sunset.

There is an abrasive and, on occasion, dark wit present throughout the book. Concerning soap operas, and the wooden acting that such TV programmes seem to require, an actress says that appearing in them “felt like pornography without the sex.” At another point the Vanity Plate Killer makes mention of the code he lives by – perhaps set out in a Serial Killers’ Handbook somewhere – when he says: “But that was rule number one. Only kill strangers.”

The murder scenes are impressive too, because of the deadpan, disassociated voice that Baum is able to give to his serial killer. They are horrific and yet somehow funny:

Removing the knife showed him how just foreign it was to be stabbed with a knife that long. … Human beings weren’t meant to be punctured by man-made steel. (p.60)

This is an immensely enjoyable (at least, for those of us who have long ago heeded Bart Simpson’s wise advice: “If you don’t watch the violence, you’ll never get desensitized to it!”) novel that is successful both as a suspenseful, engrossing thriller and as something more: a savage satire on aspects of modern American life in the vein of DeLillo‘s White Noise. Some years back, Iain Banks wrote Complicity, a novel which used the conventions of the serial killer genre to offer a critique of post-Thatcherite Britain and its attendant ills. Baum, it seems, is on a similar mission, his target being (to employ a found oxymoron) celebrity culture and its reason for existence: our own bloated appetite for what Carl Jensen, the founder of Project Censored, has called Junk Food News. I would, though, suggest that Baum has trumped Banks’ ace, for his killers are altogether more alienated, authentic and disturbing (“People weren’t any more complicated than an on/off switch,” Michael reflects at one point). Overall, North of Sunset is an outstanding feat of storytelling that will gain a wide readership.

About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at pkane853@yahoo.co.uk

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