PLAYING WITH FIRE by Bob Veder

PLAYING WITH FIRE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Escalating arson and murder ravage a small upstate-N.Y, town full of rotten people--in an uncertain, between-genres first novel that doesn't add up to much but does offer some talented, creepy vignettes (verging on black comedy) along the way. The town is Fallsview, where rising real-estate greed is only one of the ugly preoccupations of the natives. Realty agent George Fuchs and carnal wife Martha lust after old man Nivers' land. Lumberyarder Bill Teef covets the adjacent highway-side land of hermit Willie Spore (""the nigger""). Heinz the baker is an unrepentant Nazi who bakes Gingerbread Jews and does disgusting things with his bread dough. Postmaster Harold Banner reads everyone's mail and seethes with repressed lust, envy, and anger. Sheriff Ronsocks enjoys shooting up the local bar. Ethel Grib, 65, is methodically planning to murder her benefactress--fat, bedridden Rose--and cheat her out of a fortune in collectibles. Plus: the more usual small-town Madame Bovarys, horny adolescents, and peeping-toms. So there are lots of suspects when someone starts burning down Fallsview buildings. And the disturbing but rarely fatal arson phase is followed by sheer mayhem: Ethel goes ahead with her plan (using a killer dog to attack both Rose and Rose's retarded brother) but winds up stuffed in a closet and immolated; Willie (""you black fucking son of Satan"") is victimized and loony-binned; postmaster Harold goes bonkers, sniping with assorted weapons, and is bloodily gunned down, vigilante-style (his sad wife has already shot herself); the local pastor, unhinged by sex in church and his daughter's promiscuity, runs amok and spontaneously combusts; and finally the whole town gathers in the church and burns, burns, burns. Whodunit? Everyone, apparently: the evil in town just spread and spread. But this seems a limp copout ending, and the novel doesn't really work at all as a gothic-horror item--with too much ironic texture for chills and only one episode (an immolation in a phone-booth) that's scream-worthy. Still, Veder shows a distinct talent for turning small-town pathos into awful/funny, effectively loathsome caricatures--the oafishly raunchy bar dialogue, the mad postman and his miserable wife, the outrageous nastiness of Ethel Grib. And so, though the ultimate effect here--something like a mixture of would-be Stephen King with poor-man's William Golding--is far from satisfying, it's an intermittently grabbing and possibly promising debut.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1980
Publisher: Linden/Simon & Schuster