Book Review : C.S DeWildt - Suburban Dick (2018)
Detective novels are a curious anachronism. If private investigators were necessary watchdogs of the American Dream in post-war America, their profession has largely been made obsolete by the invention of the internet. So why are they still such a vibrant part of our collective imaginary? What is so comforting about the thought of paying someone to solve our life-altering issues? C.S DeWildt modern take on the genre Suburban Dick has its own views on these questions and some extra mojo to spare on top of that. It isn't DeWildt's most powerful novel, but it's his most witty and observant yet.
Suburban Dick is the story of Gus Harris, a private investigator operating out of a small town called Horton. There isn't much work to do around, which puts pressure on his wedding and makes him look inadequate to his kids. Opportunity knocks when the Hughes family hire Gus to find their son Albie, who disappeared after his teammate on the wrestling team jumped from a bridge. The kid's been gone for a long time, but no one except his parents seem to be concerned. Is Albie's disappearance just an inexplicable tragedy or does it threaten the precarious balance that allows Horton to function? Gus Harris is on the case.
This is a novel about high school culture in small town America. In Horton, the school is at the core of the town's identity, because they're its only source of pride. That leads people to be pretty fucking unreasonable about it. So, in Suburban Dick, is not investigating the shortcomings of the American Dream like a classic detective would do. He's investigating the fabric of it. The novel is disturbing and efficient because Gus Harris is investigating an idiosyncratic culture of success, which threw out Albie Hughes for being a troublesome element. Everything functions the way it's supposed to be in Suburban Dick. Their teenage wrestlers are dying and disappearing, but townsfolk discard them as collateral damage.
I had a couple minor issues with Suburban Dick, which is a major tonal shift for C.S DeWildt. The family drama angle and the mystery are an odd coupling at times. It slows down the narrative, but not in a good way. It feels sometimes like Richard Russo's Empire Falls is colonizing a Veronica Mars episode. This is like ketchup and sushi, you know? The two are great on their own, but don't necessarily go together. It leads to some stiff dialogue at times, too. Especially the most dramatic moments. When you have to shift from friendly-neighborhood small town to psychopathic hyperreality in a couple pages, this is the kind of problems that might happen.
So, there you have it. Suburban Dick is another solid novel by C.S DeWildt. It doesn't have the visceral power of his previous novel Kill 'Em With Kindness, but it has more of a mainstream appeal to it. Perhaps my favorite thing about it is that its private investigator Gus Harris is not protecting the American Dream, but investigating it. He's investigating us and our selfish and unreasonable desires. This is why we still read detective novels in the twenty-first century. If the system was out to get us in post-war America, we have turned against one another in the twenty-first century and we still need imaginary watchdogs to have our back.