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stay close

26 july 2014

At the heart of Harlan Coben's ditzy and infuriatingly readable Stay Close is a veritable "Gift of the Magi" of the New Jersey Noir. Seventeen years before the novel opens, down the shore, a heart-of-gold hooker and a gonzo photojournalist had been so very much in love. When somebody cut the throat of a john who'd been pushing her around, both young lovers found the corpse independently. Both assumed their lover had done the deed. Both resolved to flee Atlantic City and start their lives over, so that the other wouldn't be blamed for the murder. Their disappearance throws the cops off the track, and they live free, but sundered, for the next 17 years.

Like I said, it's New Jersey, these things happen. Two common Coben motifs bring them back together: the cold case and the buried past. Cassie becomes Megan, soccer mom à l'outrance. Ray becomes a seedy pseudopaparazzo. On the seventeenth anniversary of their parting, another abusive john disappears, and by chance they converge on the scene, suspects again. You try to bury your life beneath an SUV-load of suburban conformity, but the hinky, high-octane past will out.

While planning his next torture-murder, one of the sadistic serial killers in Stay Close muses on the nature of the Jersey subdivision:

Human beings were not built for self-denial. It was why diets rarely worked in the long run. Or abstinence. … He thought about that house on the end of a cul-de-sac, about children and backyard barbecues and teaching his kid to catch a baseball and spreading out the blanket for July Fourth fireworks. … Why, he wondered, if that family life leads to unhappiness, are we all still drawn to it? (310)
Without answering this maniac's question, Coben provides answers implicitly in Stay Close that match the ideology of his other novels. We crave survival and safety, and the suburbs provide them. And we do anything, absolutely anything, for our kids – the suburbs being the greatest mechanism ever devised for raising them in security. Twice in Stay Close, a character remembers a scene from their kid's early childhood. The toddler falls from a swing set or the top of a staircase or something. In one memory (177), the father launches himself towards the kid, and is too late to prevent a broken bone, and the kid grows up nasty and becomes serial-killer meat. In the other, the father supernaturally saves the kid from injury and wins the undying love of all around and the kid grows up unhindered (334).

Coben's emphasis on our hard-wiring leads to certain anti-feminist stances. Dancers and escorts are in "the life" by choice. ("This is the best they'll ever get. It's fun and exciting. It's a party every night," an alumnus of the life explains to a seasoned cop, 381.) Coben doesn't downplay men's exploitative behavior, or their abusiveness towards sex workers, but he portrays the world of sex business as essentially fun. But fun is not safe, and safe remains in tense counterpoint with fun.

There's hard-boiled dialogue to get you past this questionable ideology. I like a guy named Fester who plays the dozens with the drunken photographer Ray on every page they meet. And the occasional lapse into broad Pulp American offers a clue that Coben isn't really drawing any of this from reality, but from the pages of other noirs.

Tawny shook her head. The stale stench of hairspray and regret wafted toward him. (65)
When Kindle-readers get nostalgic for the odor of books, this must be what they're talking about.

Coben, Harlan. Stay Close. New York: Dutton [Penguin], 2012.