Hell's Kitchen by Chris Niles

by Wesley Burnett


We Can't All Be Ted Bundy

Cyrus, the only child of super-achieving parents, trudges through a swamp of despair surrounded by the dark spirals of a disturbed mind. Then he accidentally shoplifts a self-help book and is born again. He finds purpose. He becomes a serial killer. Quill is a scamp, an aspiring writer with a permanent writer’s block. He overcomes New York’s distorted housing market by sponging off women much his better. His successes are bewildering. Tye, a British immigrant, is tall, slender, utterly perfect in face and figure, and determined to make it in America’s fast lane. Her faults include a touch of sentimentality, a peculiar sense of shame, and an excessive gullibility when it suits her creator’s literary needs. She is unusually equipped with several passports, and she exploits New York’s tight housing market with elaborate real estate frauds.

Boy meets girl. First sight sparks true love frustrated by their complex, fraudulent lives until the violent climax, a confrontation that also resolves several sub-plots and love affairs.

cover art

Hell's Kitchen

Chris Niles

(Akashic Books)

Niles tells the story through a series of episodes, sometimes no longer than a short paragraph, that admirably manage a large number of apparently unrelated characters and events with ease. She has several habits, however, that seriously irritate. Among these is to introduce without warning sudden miracles at a moment of crises. ‘Oh, I’ve not mentioned that the laws of gravity don’t apply on this planet,’ sort of thing. The bookcase is a hidden door leading to a secret passage. Really! Penniless Quinn is subsidized by a grandmother, and the ne’er-do-well has uncharacteristically hoarded the loot all along. Tye’s skills as a pickpocket and lock pick come as a complete shock, apparently the invention of the moment. The reader feels cheated. Much of the pleasure of this type of story is second-guessing the author based on a shared set of facts. Without the facts, the game can’t be played, and one might as well turn on the TV.

Another irritant is that Niles starts too many episodes with the name of the character and a verb. Tye waited. Quinn woke. Quinn looked. Adrian kissed. At first the device seems a considerate way of sorting out all those characters the author introduces at such a furious pace. How thoughtful. The device might also contribute to the author’s tremendous capacity for satire. Gee, she even pokes-fun at the rubrics of style and presentation. Unfortunately, the approach prevails long after the satire has ceased. Eventually the reader wants to scream, ‘Can’t we do this some other way’?

The striking thing about Niles’ humor is her ability to create terse, well-worded one-liners. But her real talent is as a satirist. Satire dribbles off each page of the first half of the novel and it is much more complex than simple one-liners. Making hyperbola of New York’s housing market, the dilemma about which Niles’ story turns, is satire of Swiftian portions, and Niles offers us great fun by examining how market deformities change behavior. Likewise, characters and their actions are a blizzard of stereotypes, bad literary things that are vital to good satire. She attacks gourmet food wrapped in banana leaves, yuppies and walkmans, post-modern career options and media moguls in offices the size of basketball courts, pricey Peruvian glacier drinking water and self-actualizing power mantras, exquisitely priced art made of condoms, tattoos, health clubs, omelets with just whites, black-painted fingernails, and double expresso in abundance. And that just starts the list. Here Niles applies her brilliant one-liners to play havoc with are our pop-culture silliness.

The satire can’t be sustained as the story gets serious and moves toward its climax. Fortunately, Niles doesn’t try. But in an epilogue, Niles, through the voice of the deranged killer, reminds us that we can’t have it all. ‘Any fool can deal with success, but deciding to live nobly among your broken dreams, that takes something’. We can’t all be Ted Bundy, there are just too many of us. And, finally, sometimes success comes down to one simple thing: changing how you see your situation.

Oh, yes, inspired by Tye’s love, Quill starts writing seriously. We eagerly await his first novel.

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