Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrimur Helgason

Who could resist a novel titled The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning? Not I.

Tomislav Boksic, a Croatian hitman known to his friends and admirers as Toxic, tells his own story: Sixty-six murders for his New York gangland bosses, a sexy, compliant girlfriend, and a compulsion for neatness. When he kills the wrong man, he has to escape from the States, leaving behind the life he knows and loves. One step ahead of the FBI, Toxic murders a televangelist in a JFK men's room, takes his clothing, passport, ticket, and identity and flies where the ticket takes him, to Reykjavik where, as Father Friendly, he's met by an Icelandic televangelist couple. They have invited Father Friendly to preach on their station. Because Iceland has no gun shops and no tradition of contract killing, Toxic is, if I can coin a phrase, a fish out of water. Complications ensue.

Among the complications is Toxic's relationship with his hosts' daughter, Gunholder. Here is Helgason's description of her: "Her body is slim, with small breasts and a tight ass, firm as a fully inflated airbag. If she was the only woman in our platoon and we were stuck in the mountains for a month, I'd start dreaming about her on Day 1." The day on which he would begin dreaming about a woman becomes a running joke through the book.

Here's another taste of Helgason's prose: Downtown Reykjavik "...reminds me of my week in Switzerland, when my architectural studies too me to a small village in the Alps to research a brand-new skiing area. The week felt like a month. It was even calmer than the fucking Belarus. The only people out were some totally unfucked housewives with Gucci hairdos doing hundred-dollar lunches in the village restaurant. Their husbands spent their days in the city, lucked up in their bank safes. They reminded me of the queen of Spain, these ladies in fur and heels, as they slowly passed the jewelry stores (rich people always walk slowly, because of the deep pockets, I guess). They were all Day 26 types, but by the fifth day, I was on the brink of a mass rape."

According to the "About the Author" page at the back of the book, Helgason began as an artist, his work showing in galleries in New York and Paris. He published his first novel in 1990 and won international attention with his third, 101 Reykjavik. The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning "is his only novel written in English. The author's own translation was published in Iceland in 2008 and became a bestseller in Germany in 2010."

Perhaps Helgason's English is so lively because he's not a native speaker. I thought the prose and Toxic's views on people and events boisterous and vivid. My problem with the book is Toxic, the narrator. Helgason tries to explain (justify?) Toxic's attitude toward murder by making him a victim/participant in the Serbian/Croatian war in which terrible people did terrible things to each other. Nevertheless, I have a real problem with a protagonist who has only the faintest hint of human feeling. Sixty-seven murders by the time he reaches Iceland, with no remorse, even with a sense of professional satisfaction. And yet, and yet. I read to the novel's end to see how things could possibly turn out.

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