It comes as no surprise to discover that Jim Fusilli was a big fan of The Fugitive, Run for Your Life, Route 66 and other drifter-does-good TV series from the 1960s. His latest two crime thrillers, Road to Nowhere (2012) and the newly released Billboard Man, are both built around a spiritually damaged protagonist called Sam Jellico, whose aimless peregrinations across the United States lead him into the lives of people in trouble—people he sometimes stops to help. Or to save, in manners that he himself might no longer be saved.
“In some ways,” says Fusilli, a New York City–based author and the longtime rock and pop music critic for The Wall Street Journal, “Sam is like Richard Kimble in The Fugitive or Tod [Stiles] and Buz [Murdock] in Route 66....He shows up in town and is drawn into mischief and misadventure. The new characters who appear in each book carry the story, to an extent, as they did in those shows. My books are populated with fully drawn ‘guest stars.’ ”
Yet it’s Sam who commands the reader’s attention in these slim, multilayered volumes. Of course, “Sam” is nothing more than a pseudonym, as convenient and spurious as the others—John Bleak, J.J. Walk, Anthony Faithful, etc.—he hides behind while he wanders from city to city, renting unremarkable apartments and cars, purchasing armloads of identical jeans and oxford shirts, and keeping his nose planted in paperback books between confrontations with malefactors who doubt the resilience of this deliberate stranger. His real moniker, as we learn in Billboard Man, is Donald Harry Bliss. He’s around 40 years old, and a widower; his wife, the former Moira Riegel, was slain after witnessing a mob hit. Bliss and their teenage daughter, Shara (nicknamed “Pup”), were offered ongoing federal protection, but he ultimately slipped past the U.S. marshals, vanishing into the anonymity of persistent rootlessness, sustained by the “small fortune” Moira left behind. Meanwhile, Shara—who’s now known as Isabel Jellico, the author of a novel with solid Hollywood filming potential—avoids contact with her father, still blaming him for Moira’s murder.
In Road to Nowhere, Bliss saw a young woman brutally assaulted, and his impulse to play good Samaritan by tracking down her attacker landed him in a wide world of hurt. In Billboard Man, we find him sidling into an Arizona watering hole, where he meets another member of the opposite sex, the sun-browned Ginger, whose ex-hubby, Boone Stillwell, takes offense at her attraction to this newcomer. Bliss winds up clocking Stillwell with a frosty beer mug and then spending the night with Ginger, before he wheels away to Memphis, Tenn. There, he seduces yet another woman, the more careworn Lola, while her ex-con boyfriend, Joe Blunt, is off peddling “ample supplies” of oxycodone. (It seems the traveling life inflames Bliss’ libido something fierce.)
As if those complications weren’t enough, Fusilli layers in a subplot about Francis Cherry, a Wall Street powerbroker whose brief experience with Fusilli’s protagonist has convinced him he wants that drifter firmly under his control, on his payroll. There’s one big problem, however: Cherry has no idea how or where to find this man he knows as John Bleak, and the person he’s assigned to track him down—his company’s overpaid head of security, former MI6 operative Ian Goldsworthy—has failed utterly at the assignment. Cherry finally decides to take matters into his own hands. He hires an artist to sketch Bleak as he last saw him, then splashes that image across a Times Square billboard, simultaneously offering a reward (conveniently unspecified) for information about his quarry’s whereabouts.
For Bliss, having his picture in public streets and plastered across the Internet is inconvenient at best. But after his name figures into a homicide investigation in Memphis, and with more than one troublemaker dogging his tail, he decides it’s high time to figure out what—and who—is behind these developments. The consequences of his actions from that point forward will affect not only his future, but that of Isabel/Shara as well.
The storytelling canvas on which Fusilli works in this novel and its predecessor is sprawling. Big and bendable enough to encompass thousands of miles of clothes-soiling travel, expansive secondary casts and episodes that alternate between violent, humorous, sensual and downright touching. The author seems acutely conscious of the ripple effects one action might exert upon another. Yet as twisted and digressive as his plot lines can occasionally be, Fusilli’s series isn’t so much about what’s happening in the outside world as it is about the relationship between his peripatetic protagonist and that man’s only child.
“At the heart of this series,” Fusilli explains, “is the question of whether Sam and his daughter can be a family again—whether they can be repaired or repair each other. Another question: What role will Cherry play in bringing them together or forcing them to remain apart? I see the series as having two end points on the distant horizon: Will Sam seek to avenge his wife’s murder? And will he and Pup reunite?”
That Jim Fusilli seems so jazzed to resolve these questions, and to get on with the crafting of his next book, marks a dramatic turn from where he was a few years ago—frustrated after composing four novels (concluding with 2004’s Hard, Hard City) about a New York writer-turned-private eye, Terry Orr, and ready to throw in the towel on the whole fiction-writing biz. It was then, though, that he started concentrating on short stories, and eventually came up with a novel unlike those he’d previously offered: Narrows Gate, a historical tale (originally released as an audiobook) about growing up in the New Jersey area during the early-20th century and becoming involved with the mob. Fusilli calls that “the novel that changed my career.” It gave him solid footing outside the first-person narrative style of PI fiction and, as he says, helped him to “reposition myself to be a writer first, regardless of genre and even if I loved genre-writing best of all.”
Billboard Man enjoys a fitting place in crime fiction, but you can see Fusilli experimenting with the genre’s limits, and maybe his own as well. There are weaknesses here: Subplots are sometimes hard to follow, most of the male characters are cartoonish lunkheads in comparison with the multidimensional female ones, and Francis Cherry’s behavior in the last part of the story doesn’t always make sense (or perhaps it will only be explained in the sequel). Nonetheless, Donnie Bliss’ deliberate evolution as a loner, the humor that leavens this yarn, and the way Fusilli seeks a leanness of prose without wholly abandoning innovative imagery all lend depth to what’s shaping up to be Fusilli’s comeback series. Stick out a thumb, hop on board and then hold on tight.