An enigmatic first novel, by short-fiction writer Nelson, about a boorish young innocent in New York who gets too friendly with a crazed janitor and plunges into a nightmare.
Fresh from the West Coast, Smith has a degree in industrial design, a portfolio full of sketches for a better garbage can lid and a revolutionary new dustpan, and a job interview at the Berenson Corporation in a few days. But as soon as he arrives in the apartment he’s borrowing from his sister, things go awry. The janitor immediately treats him with disturbing intimacy and in broken English imparts a story of a boy naked in a box . . . somewhere. Smith begins to sweat from more than the sweltering August heat when he sees on TV that night that a young boy has gone missing, and a series of encounters with people he barely knows leaves him all the more on edge. The janitor’s son threatens him, a diner waitress with an overbite gives him the brush-off, a sexy married neighbor becomes afraid of him—all when he broaches the subject of the boy, whom he is now obsessed with finding. Even a trip to the police turns ugly when Smith won’t relent before a bullying pair of detectives who seem to know more than they divulge and who want him to forget about the whole thing. Frustrated at every turn, hustled by a pair of con men when he takes to the streets to search for the boy in the box, he’s all but become a raving lunatic himself. Then he goes for his interview, in which an impish, uncannily well-informed interlocutor shakes Smith and his sense of reality to the core. After that degrading experience, however, he’s given a glimmer of existential hope at last, fleeting though it may be.
A Kafka-laced concoction full of jarring, calibrated effects, for those who take their fiction dry and chilled.