The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrímur Helgason
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The witless naif who wanders around a foreign environment and calls it as he sees it, unintentionally bringing the oppositional truth to light, is a literary trope that has been around since the beginning of story-telling. Just consider Adam's initial exclamation when he first encounters Eve: “Flesh of my flesh!” surely rates as the most original and mythical naif “boner” of all time.
It's hard to improve on that, but the literary impulse is relentless, giving readers a rich heritage of unforgettable naif progeny, including Don Quixote, Prince Myshkin and Howard The Duck. And now we have Hallgrimur Helgason's Turn-of-the-Millennium naif: Tomislav Boksic, AKA “Toxic,” a hit man for the Croatian mafia who finds himself on the lam, posing as an American televangelist in contemporary Iceland — very much “trapped in a world he did not make.”
Toxic navigates this bizarre world in a manner common to oafish thugs everywhere: improvising a constant stream of imbecilic lies, while exuding equal parts menace and brute sexual charm. All the while he observes and processes and alters the environment he's in, developing a perspective that becomes uncomfortably familiar. Here he follows his new lover into a furniture store, after hours:
We make our way through the office and out into the store. In back there are three king size beds on display, all made in India by twelve-year-old carpenter whiz-kids. We've tried them all, but the one behind the Kama Sutra room divider is the safest. It can't be seen from the screaming bright window out front. So after all, we manage to find a semi-dark corner in the bright and shining land. And by making the Hindu handiwork squeak, I can honor the memory of my lost [read: “murdered”] love. Still the bed holds up to all our freaky gymnastics. Those Indian kids really know their craft.
The real gymnastics are Toxic's moral equivocations, involving a body-count that begins with, but is not limited to, the 66 hits he carried out on American soil. But of course taking the life of another is just the one extreme of the moral spectrum. There's also this business of honouring the memory of his “lost” lover, to say nothing of benefiting from household items made by children in other countries . . . .
Is Toxic — are we — even capable of acquiring moral perspective in this environment? Astute readers know there is a more pressing concern on Toxic's horizon, thanks to the botched hit-job that began the novel: will he live long enough for any of this to matter?
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