Chicago: Hopeless Books, 2014
I would not like to be in a room with any character from Andy Nowicki’s latest novel Heart Killer. Then again, I really wouldn’t know it if I were. Andy Nowicki has written a novel about evil within, about depravity within, about horror within.
As his character writes in his diary: “It was necessary for the righteous usurper to adopt the outer garments of what the world foolishly reckons to be ‘virtue’, the better to obtain camouflage and so be enabled to muck up the works from within.” We never know who we are standing next to, do we? Ah, duplicity!
We never know the depths of each other’s personal hells or hellish bents. We never know why, exactly, a man or a woman does what he or she does. What drives them, what haunts them, what makes one man a hero, what makes another man sick (by the way, Nowicki’s characters — male or female — are all sick). And, even if they tell us, can we believe what they say anyway? The book itself asks this same question:
“Why should we trust his veracity?” On these matters, the narrator must retreat to what many will surely take to be an utterly unsatisfactory silence. He humbly asks the reader to take him at his word, as a matter of faith. Faith can move mountains, and it can stem the heart’s terror and panic, replacing these unsettling emotions with a wonderful sense of joy and calm. Have faith in faith, the narrator meekly requests, and perhaps all will ultimately be well.
Andy Nowicki has a talent — a terrible and awesome talent — he can write evil well. Not mere evil, but dark and tortured evil, base and twisted evil, evil that has no romance, no cool, no notes of goth and candle wax . . . just the stink of fear and (shall we say?) human liquid proteins — of every type imaginable. His protagonists are adepts in amazing acts of self-absorbing revisionism — they constantly filter and balance each action, each thought with a reason or a compulsion that precisely whitewashes their complicity and throws the bulk of any blame right square away — far away — from themselves.
“Those who have never strayed will never understand this. It is only bad men, like me, who know the true horror of evil, who feel its gnawing teeth hollowing you out from within, leaving you full of nothing but black despair. Only those we castigate as ‘monsters’ truly suffer such a privation; the innocent and incorruptible, whatever else they may be forced to endure in their lifetimes, have no idea what real torment is. You don’t have to die and literally travel to the infernal regions to know with certainty that you are damned” says Johann—a man who is filled with a lust for revenge so great that he bases not one life, but a repeat of a life, on it and nothing else . . . he is too morally weak to actually avenge himself directly, no . . . he chooses to hide behind fake personas and (quite literally) screw with people’s lives, after which he backs off, and lets his victims do what they will.
Evil to the nth degree: there is not even a sense of twisted honor in this deeply flawed character, not even enough backbone or courage to commit more than a base and psychologically depraved cat and mouse game with his so-called tormentors turned victims. Nowicki writes flawed people flawlessly: this character does not deviate, this character never grows on the reader, this character never gains the reader’s trust. Wisely, I may add. Which is deceptively difficult to sustain in a character driven novel such as Heart Killer.
Heart Killer is written in parts—four parts, to be exact, like the chambers of the human heart—the first part is a memoir written by a female forensic analyst and profiler with the FBI, “Frances Newman, née Lazarus.” She has issues with her father, her sister, her mother and a penchant for serial offfenders:
I avidly studied the ways of the serial killer, and showed such unique drive and aptitude that I got noticed early on by my instructors at the Academy in Quantico. I graduated early, with honors, and soon found myself unleashed upon the nasty underworld of violent crime at a tender young age. Nobody knew my secret, that I really felt in my element perusing and studying these guys because I felt a kinship with them. They were my spirit brothers. The power they found to commit their grisly acts fascinated me; in fact, I plainly coveted it. I knew, as a woman, that I could never take such pleasure in destroying life; such acts, for good or for ill, were generally the province of men — yet I got a real buzz off of scrutinizing the brazen, spirited transgressions of this horrid gang of bloody Misfits. I felt particularly drawn to the men who tortured and killed women. I’d grown into quite the closet misogynist, in fact . . . I pored over the forensics with greedy, gluttonous voracity; where my mostly male colleagues blanched, I couldn’t get enough. They, of course, pictured their mothers, wives, and daughters as among the mutilated . . .
The second part of Heart Killer is the diary of Johann Salvadorus—the Heart Killer himself. It contains much that is “bizarre, and unseemly, as are all things in this world and particularly in this age, which sees itself as ‘post-modern’: the culmination of justice, the settling of accounts, the ‘end of history.’ So vile, this pretension! Unspeakably, grotesquely vile!”
Lastly, we hear from a pair of unnamed narrators — first is the third person omnipresent voice of presumably the author. I say presumably because the reader cannot be sure it is the voice of Andy Nowicki anymore than the first two sections were, because “This third-person narrator, though immortal, is not omniscient, as he has already explained; in fact, his vision only stretches up to the time he knows to be the ‘present.’ But from his viewpoint — that is, from the perspective he has been granted by his Creator, for his Creator’s own inscrutable purposes — it is March, 2002.” The fourth part, which is the epilogue, is also written in third person, and does not seem to have been written by the same narrator of the third part . . . but in a Nowicki novel, anything is possible.
Which brings up yet another facet of Heart Killer. Heart Killer is more than just a novel. What Nowicki has done is to create double-sided literature, a work with two faces, a book that has a hidden heart beneath its obvious killer. On face value, it is a spec-fic/erotic-thrillery, Twilight Zoney, Chuck Palahniuky contempo-edgy piece about revenge, written mostly in diary form and wrapped up neatly in clarifying third person. It seems to be more of a fast-paced read than a deep piece of thoughtful literature. Andy Nowicki cleverly wraps pearls of wisdom behind the pigs’ ears of revenge/sexual theme-focused swine . . . there is duality everywhere in the book. If you know where to look.
The first tip off of the double nature of this novel is a most obvious one: the very first character is Frances Lazarus, who becomes Frances Newman. Lazarus and Newman (two names) both contain duality—Lazarus rose from the dead to live again, and as he did he became a new man. The hints grow more complicated as the story progresses: Johann Salvadorus, the focus of the novel, is named for Johann Bach (a man, interestingly enough, who had a brother named Bach who also composed music and whose official seal contained the letters J. S. B. superimposed over their own mirror image — please note that JS make Johann Salvadorus’s initials as well as Johann Sebastian Bach’s first two). The naming of this character is in itself a doubling up — creating a man who is not named for himself but for another.
Both Frances and Johann have fathers who abandon them (for other women) and both have no respect for their spineless mothers who are too passive to be angry about this. Both Frances and Johann connect indirectly with the reader through their memoir/diaries. Both Frances and Johann possess deep pockets of shame about their inner carnality. Both dream explicitly. Both are very sick puppies, inside, where nobody can tell.
Johann goes on to have an actual double life in which he lives his teenaged years again– in speaking of this time the narrator refers to him as “parallel Johann.” It is during this parallel life that he meets Frances, and both their lives become entwined. Johann’s double life doubles yet again when he becomes Brother Pelagius (yet another name that has already been famously taken, and, as we all know, the original Pelagius was accused of duplicitousness . . .).
I won’t ruin the book by revealing any more than this incomplete glimpse of the plot, or by introducing any more of the characters, but I will ruin the reader’s anticipation of a simple enjoyable read with four words: it’s not that simple.
Underneath the basics, beyond the plot intrigues, the minor characters and the revenge- rationalizing backstories, there is a deep reservoir of authentic despair that seems to emanate out of European humanity’s current wrestle to the death with the 21st century. Nowicki gives voice to the dying of our culture in passages that are seamlessly woven in among his paragraphs.
Does he — Andy Nowicki — actually know that this duality exists in his novel? I have no idea; he is an intelligent man, though, let me just say that. The alert, awakened, reader who sees beyond the base surface of the novel will be richly rewarded, for the novel yields words that illuminate and underline our current crises in everything that we hold sacred about faith, folk and family. Some examples at random include:
. . . the cultural detritus that lay everywhere at my feet; indeed, the sexual revolution, the erosion of the family, the prevalence of divorce, the decimation of virtue, the ascent of pornographic prurience, and the overall moral destitution of the era . . .
Yes, Mom saw no problem with a thorough “both-and” approach; she had no room for the “either-or.” Thus, the dictates of our licentious, lecherous, drug-addled, sex-addled modern American culture was of one piece with the prescriptions of the Holy Bible. Of course, my mother meant no harm, and possessed not an ounce of guile, and perhaps this was why she was never struck with a sense of cognitive dissonance, even for one second; the principle of non-contradiction — the essence of all clear-headed and logical thinking — went seemingly unknown and was in any case never acknowledged . . .
Another detail I recall from church are the felt banners which graced the altar (and I use the word “grace” very loosely); to me, they symbolized the papier-mâché frailty of faith in the modern age, faith shorn of its essence, emasculated, rendered a grotesque, toothless parody of its former self. The aesthetic dignity of Christianity has never recovered from the enforced hippy-dippy makeover of recent years.
. . . It was soon thereafter that I came to see “feminism” for what it truly was, in many cases: a means by which pretty girls could feel righteous in rejecting and venting spiteful cruelty upon unattractive guys. When you’re a woman, and you aren’t attracted to a man who is obviously attracted to you, the vexation you feel must be grating: just who is this loser, getting in your way and cramping your style? His loser-geek germs are infecting your blissful spirit, dragging you down; how dare he make a pass at you? He must be a SEXIST or a SEXUAL HARASSER. But when the guy is a hot, popular studmuffin, the rules shift. Suddenly it’s cute and appealing for him to grope you in the hallway, or make cutting remarks, or behave in a manner that would be beyond assholish if a non-stud behaved similarly.
Apostle Paul constructs his argument on the basis of rank; essentially, God, being the High Commander, can’t be other than right. But when you look at the ways and workings of the world, can it really be said to be “good”? What prevails is the heartless law of the jungle; might makes right.
. . . Purer Realm, the place where we truly belong, where we dwelt peaceably before we were inexplicably dragged here to this land of discord and corruption that ill-suits our true nature. In which case, we are only asleep . . . But how do we wake up?
Indeed, how does anyone wake up from a Nowickian novel dream/nightmare? It is hard to shake Heart Killer off, once you decide to pick it up—particularly when you are able to plumb its labyrinthine depths. Nowicki wrote a novel that out-Crowleys Crowley, out-Mishimas Mishima, out-Palahniuks Palahniuk, out-Kings King, and maybe even in some ways out-Covingtons Covington.
He out-Nowickis Nowicki, too, with this one.