By Jonathan Segura
Simon & Schuster, 256 pages, $14
The 11-page first chapter of Occupational Hazards, a wildly foul-mouthed, mostly derivative, modestly suspenseful and ultimately likable debut novel by Jonathan Segura (an editor at Publishers Weekly), includes the words "fuck," "fucking," "fuckers," "fucked," "goddamned," "hell," "shit," "suck," "fart," "pisser," "prick," "blowjob," "jerk off" and "sumbitch."
But coarsest of all is our pill-addled, flake-shouldered, chain-smoking, un-smiling boozehound hero and narrator, whose name happens to be Cockburn, though that’s not pronounced like it looks.
Cockburn speaks in icy little sentences. He writes half-heartedly—no, eighth-heartedly—for the Omaha Weekly News-Telegraph, headquartered in a yellowing basement. The sign on the office door is written in marker. He lives with a short, pale, chubby, small-breasted girlfriend, and he doesn’t love her. Or like her. Sometimes he has to deal with a lieutenant named Dick Savage, and he doesn’t like him either, which may or may not have to do with a memory of watching his widower father get crushed by his riding mower.
Their Nebraska town has gum-smacking hookers, a clutch of creepy real estate developers, plus a squad of whooping, gun-packing neighborhood-watch thugs. Cockburn tangles with them. He curses at them. He drinks cheap whiskey. He has a bad past. Guns go off. He gets beat up, he gets urinated on, but he doesn’t ever quite get the big story he’s after.
I didn’t quite get the story, either, which is because there isn’t all that much of one to understand. Most of the action is saved for the novel’s final chapters, when the book spins and stumbles through a gory ("Spit out a tongue chunk. Bloody."), uncomfortable, weirdly sexual and confusing climax.
The story features a very limited number of bad guys who have a very limited set of bad things that they may or may not be up to in their shadowy lairs. There aren’t many good guys, either. It’s hard to root for the 30-something Cockburn, who went to Northwestern on a scholarship but makes flatulence noises with his mouth, then tells his pregnant semi-girlfriend that getting an abortion is "like getting an ingrown toenail yanked."
It’s like the novel’s mysterious prostitute Luka says when we first meet her: "Motherfuckers just get off on feeling like they strong."
But who needs sympathetic characters or too much plot when there’s a chestful of noir-aping, mouth-gaping prose? "Let me get a coffee real quicklike" is how Cockburn speaks to his editor; "Mister Grimes, I presume" is how he greets the book’s big villain. His emotions are "a hot swirl of frustration, resentment, anger, desperation and shame," and he handles all that by dragging on a cigarette so hard "nicotine syrup might ooze out the filter." His Nebraska town’s storefronts are lit with "sallow sunlight filtered through dirty windows," and every apartment has its "twenty-year-old shag carpet that probably started out white," if not something sadder.
What makes the dime-store shtick so much fun is that there are other things going on, too. Instead of dames in red heels, for example, we get an agonizingly memorable one-paragraph sex scene with downers and impotence.
There’s also a curveball subplot about Omaha’s new condos, but the book is more concerned with the big developer’s sexual perversities than the evils of real estate deals and cold-blooded gentrification—which is a less saucy topic but miles more interesting.
Realty turns out to be vaguely important to that bloody climax, which takes place in a demented basement bordello hidden in one of the developer’s properties. Beaten to a Tarantino pulp, Cockburn half-recognizes a picture of Roman Polanski on a basement wall: But Omaha isn’t Los Angeles, and Occupational Hazards, no matter how many times the journalist pulls hard on his cigarette, and no matter how high up or municipally far-reaching the bad guys’ conspiracy goes, just isn’t Chinatown. Less Jack Nicholson, in other words, more Donnie Wahlberg.
But that’s O.K. Occupational Hazards is a fun little book that pops just often enough to make you think Jonathan Segura will do less deputy editing for Publishers Weekly and more novel writing. But please, let his next novel not include the sentence "Fuckity fuckity fuck fuck fuck."
Max Abelson is a reporter at The Observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.