Released last year in England and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Richard House's "The Kills" is a sprawling, 1,000-page epic that forgoes the formulaic machinations of the lowbrow thriller and aspires to high art.
"The Kills" is divided into four book-length sections with overlapping narratives. They can be read in any order, which is usually code for "unresolved conclusion" — but have no fear, there are plenty of unhappy endings in "The Kills."
The first section, "Sutler," opens with a very bad day in Iraq. The principals aren't soldiers but contractors for a Halliburton-like multinational corporation called HOSCO International that has wormed its way into every facet of supporting combat operations: from building roads that don't need building to burning things HOSCO doesn't want found.
John Jacob Ford, who is working under the name Sutler, gets a cryptic message from Paul Geezler, the man who hired him, telling him to take the money and run. Before Sutler can escape, the building blows up. Sutler survives and wanders into the Iraqi desert with nothing but the codes to secret accounts where untold millions have been stashed.
As the story takes shape, House inundates the reader with minutiae specific to the world of military contracts and contractors. It's overwhelming, but it's meant to be.
"A world without the middleman upon which everything depended struck him as a truly fearful world. No food, no water, no pay, no cash, no cola, Tang, Rip It, Bawl's, and no Red Bull; nowhere to sleep, nothing to sleep on, nothing to sit on, or sit at; no store, no spare parts, nothing to drive, no trucks, no tanks, no Humvees, no drivers, no transport, no blast walls, no checkpoints, no protective vests, no bullets, no tourniquets, no doctors, no nurses, no blood, no plasma, no morphine, not one aspirin."
Sutler makes his way to Turkey, where he falls in with French academics making a documentary about the horrors of war. House masterfully mixes the story line of the global manhunt for Sutler with intimate portraits of men and women in crisis. The former hooks the reader, but it's the latter that keeps the pages turning.
While book one is rendered in a clear and straightforward style, book two is much more artful, offering a chronologically skewed view of the events leading to Sutler's disappearance. It begins with the deaths of every man assigned to the burn pits and then proceeding to the story of Rem Gunnersen, the man who brought them there, going all the way back to his unconventional hiring by Geezler. Even the alternating narratives between Rem and his wife are out of sync.
During the course of the first two sections, various characters refer to a book about a notorious unsolved crime in Naples, Italy, that has been made into a popular film called "The Kill." There are many permutations of the grisly story, but all center on a basement room where evidence of a gruesome murder is found but no body. House takes the tropes of the locked room and the missing dead man and runs with them, doubling and tripling the story lines that mirror the central narrative of the search for someone who may or may not exist.
The first half of section three, "The Kill" consists of a day-by-day account of the crimes, their clumsy coverup, and the confusion that follows. The second half focuses on an ambitious young American college student who has come to Italy to write the real story of the crimes. Is the first half the "true" version or the student's account?
Postmodern flourishes abound. Early in the novel, Sutler, given an opportunity to read "The Kill," insists "he wasn't much of a reader and anyway didn't read thrillers." The man offering the book, who has no idea that he too will soon disappear, responds: "It's nothing like a thriller."
That's true. None of the four sections meet the specification of a thriller, but "The Hit" comes closest with dangerous Russian mobsters, relentless federal investigators, and a ruthless killer closing in on his prey. In "The Hit" we meet Rike, the sister-in-law of a man we briefly encounter in book two who is tasked with finding Sutler. Rike, who has a conflicted relationship with her pregnant sister and scofflaw brother, serves as the story's moral center. This is something House does throughout the project: He gives the mothers, sisters and wives clearer insight to the moral quagmire their men blindly tumble into at every turn.
Despite the influence of Roberto Bolaño's "2666," Sutler calls the protagonist of another open-ended epic to mind: Tyrone Slothrop of Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow," a character who disappears from the book but whose presence can be felt on every page. "The Kills" has similar goals as "Gravity's Rainbow": to expose the greed and corruption that thrives in the economy of war.
House may not have written a conventional thriller, but "The Kills" is a thrilling work of art by a writer at the top of his game.
Ruland's debut novel, "Forest of Fortune," was published this month.
Picador: 1,024 pp., $35