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“Cal's ethics class was enough to drive him to murder” (Shadowlands Press, ISBN 1930595018, c.2001, p.15). This opening sentence gives you gobs into the brilliance of this novel. Besides foreshadowing, it establishes the complete dominance of a third person omnipotent point of view, plus spreads out its theme with astonishing brevity. This is indeed about learning a personal code of behavior and how it is governed by the world. But, the arcana of which world?
At first, Caleb Prentiss seems a typical student. Bored and antsy with his final year, he's directionless and unmotivated towards his career, his girlfriend, himself. He is drinking and brooding, petulant and depressed. He returns from a winter break stupor to find a girl has been murdered in his dorm room. This gets his blood flowing, so to speak, since, as one character put it, “you suffer from hysterical stigmata . . . Remarkable, you've taken your martyr complex to the extreme” (Ibid, p.241). This supernatural condition first reared when his ex-nun sister made him watch while she razored her wrists when he was 7 years old, thus creating a bond of blood to the nether world. Cal comes to realize the rarity and power of this untainted gift of love when his somnambulistic friend, Fruggy Fred, begins sending him messages from his dreamstate. As Cal obsesses on finding out the who's and why's of the dead girl, the novel unfolds like a med school corpse dissection, goring up in betrayals, deceits, and, of course, more murders.
Piccirilli sometimes gleefully drops one metaphor onto another, but most of the time, they cut through the gristle like, “Professor Yokver's house, like the man himself, stood with enough scorn to raise bile” (Ibid, p.221), or, “her gaze drained like a dead battery” (Ibid, p.184). His style is sharp yet equivocal, splattering his gut-shot verbiage with puzzling allusions or seemingly-inappropriate phrases. But the real brilliance here is how he reveals his main character. Outside of him yet not with the third-person technique, Cal is not so much an elusive narrator as a deluded one. As readers, we are like curious spirits, colloquially watching his back, while sharing his terror and pain of revelation. Piccirilli does not pander; insight is based on adeptness.
Subtextually, the novel uses the anxiety and pressure of achievement for its nascent creepiness. The fear of academic failure becomes tantamount to the horror of obligation for life to corrupt powermongers. It's the age-old Faustian dilemma with a scholarly coat of paint. Cal 's pending graduation is the acceptance of a system intractable in its self-serving conceits. Learning to perjure, manipulate, and carouse in greed, avarice, or desire become classes graded in the stain of his growing awareness.
But the real “razors of his education” (Ibid, p.247) lie in understanding Fruggy's pronouncement, “If you control the dream of the world then you control the world” (Ibid, p.29). The soul-crushing irony that dominates the novel is that life is really death when existence is a materialistic world of cruel indifference populated by demons that suck the soul out of every living thing. Love is possibly a salvation, until these ghouls glom onto “the thought of losing one's love to another . . . Perhaps there truly is no worse pain” (p.243) and engorge on it like vultures to carrion. The only escape is to seek animation in dreams or death.
In this upside down world, an ethics class can resolve itself in murder.