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Quiet Desperation by Thomas Paulson

Quiet Desperation

By Thomas Paulson

Pub Date: April 6th, 2012
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services

A compelling mix—part legal thriller, part chilly moral shocker, with doses of comedy.

Andrew is an unemployed recent law school graduate living in Princeton, N.J. His job search is going nowhere, but at least his romance with sensible, attractive Florence is beginning to blossom. One evening after a date with Florence, a violent sociopath attacks Andrew, and Andrew kills him in self-defense. The ambiguously written scene and the character’s later reflections on the assault introduce the idea that Andrew feels no remorse; he may have even enjoyed the thrill of killing the man. The novel leaves this complex corner mostly unexplored, however, as Andrew goes about hiding the evidence of his crime. When the police arrest a gang member for the murder, Andrew and his law school buddy Tony offer their assistance to the defense counsel as part of their plot to plant evidence and ensure that the defendant is convicted. It’s unclear what Paulson is after with the amoral goings on; the characters are clearly unlikable, yet they’re not rendered insightfully or stylishly enough to pass as existential character studies. Further confusing the novel’s tone is the comic presence of Andrew’s foulmouthed aunt, Ginny, and Andrew’s eventual employment as a nude model for a sculpting class. The unsettled tone, choppy transitions between chapters and excessive cast of supporting characters create the impression that the book was whittled down from a larger work. Some elements work very well, though: Paulson, a real-life attorney, pens impressive courtroom scenes; Andrew has moments of dark, striking rumination; and his debut as a nude model is relayed in a clever, funny scene. The prose, strained during the portions written from the sociopath’s point of view, is otherwise solid. Yet when the novel ends, the reader is left with too many questions and an indistinct takeaway.

A promising but flawed Grisham–Camus–Sedaris mash-up that struggles to deliver.