The Throat is an often brilliant thriller that is concerned with big questions about identity, the past and our memory of it, the demons that shape us and the demons we carry with us. It is intricately structured, densely layered, full of eerie and haunting dreams and flashbacks, and is impressively thoughtful in its take on murder and vengeance. As a third book in a trilogy, it also must extend and wrap up storylines started in the preceding novels Koko and Mystery – and for the most part it delivers. But sadly, the novel is a deeply flawed one. There are many minor irritations that I could look past, but I can’t ignore the flaw at its heart: its terrible mismanagement of a certain key character. The person at the heart of the novel seems to be the character that Straub lost all interest in fairly early on – which leaves the novel with a hollow core rather than one that should have been full of mystery and meaning.
Brief synopsis: Tim Underhill from Koko and Tom Pasmore from Mystery come together to solve a series of killings by a resurfaced – or new? – Blue Rose Killer. The Blue Rose killings and their legacy lived in the corners and shadows of the previous novels and so I was full of anticipation in seeing them given their due.
It is a strange experience to read a book, admire the technical skill of its writing, and spend hours upon hours living in its world (The Throat is nearly 700 pages long)… and end up feeling utterly disappointed. And yet I don’t feel like I wasted my time. Straub is a masterful writer. This novel reconfirmed to me that he is the yin to Stephen King’s yang, the coolly intellectual brain to King’s bloodily beating heart. King has kinetic characters who jump off the page just as his narratives can spin messily out of control. Straub has dispassionate, contemplative ciphers as characters who live in stories that, despite being both lengthy and dreamily ambiguous, are still narratives that are carefully mapped out. I don’t think one writer is better than the other; they are both masters. And so because I enjoy Straub's intelligence, his concentration, even his quasi-Jungian flourishes. Although it was ultimately a disappointment, it was also a fascinating experience and I don’t regret the many hours spent within its pages.
“Then the nightly miracle took place once again, and I fell down into the throat of my novel.”
SPOILERS FOLLOW. ALSO, a lot of bitching. So if you loved this book, you may just want to skip it all.
Okay, the minor irritations. First: there is a very sloppy bit of meta-nonsense in the beginning where Peter Straub is a character in the novel; this is done to resolve the problem of Mystery’s island setting - which is incompatible with the story started with Koko and ending with The Throat. That sloppiness casts a shadow on the characters of Underhill and Pasmore, who now confusingly seem to have the same childhoods. Or not, who knows – Straub doesn’t clear things up. Second: the setting of Millhaven is schizophrenically portrayed: at times a small town where everyone knows everyone and you can easily walk from one end to the other in the space of a couple hours, at other times a highly dangerous city of industry (365 murders a year! For real?) modeled on Chicago or Milwaukee or Detroit. Third: by the middle of the book I easily figured out the identities of all three killers: Old Killer, New Killer, Surprise Killer. It was obvious to me and I am no Tom Pasmore: the Bad Man, the Good Man, and the Catalyst (for the story itself) are all too-clearly telegraphed as the killers on numerous occasions. Fourth, Lt. Bachelor is compelling but is also a second-rate Colonel Kurtz, living in his Vietnam era heart of darkness. Fifth, the use of race riots as a backdrop in a novel that itself doesn’t engage with race or racial tensions felt… disrespectful and sorta cheap.
I could actually have looked past all of those things and still given this novel a somewhat qualified thumbs up. But the laziness in dealing with central character John Ransom just drove me up the wall. This is a character who is the catalyst for the entire novel. He is given an intriguing introduction that sets him up to be fascinatingly multidimensional; his flashback appearances in Vietnam are likewise interesting. But that is not the character we spend the most time with – instead we get a John Ransom who is a petty, whiny, greedy dipshit who exists to bitch, moan, roll his eyes, and make a series of foolish mistakes. He becomes a tedious drag to the story whenever he appears. John Ransom needed to be an ambiguous creation, evasive and mysterious yet real enough to come alive on the page – practically every other page, because he’s that much of a lynchpin to The Throat’s narrative. He needed to be resonant; instead he is flat, flat, flat. Fie, Straub, fie! The heart of darkness is not a petulant douchebag.