Hell’s Kitchen , by Chris Niles. Akashic Books, 279 pages, $15.95.
Here’s a novel that’s crowded, rushed, exciting, mixed-up, fun, dangerous and a little dirty. In other words, it perfectly matches its Manhattan setting.
A comedy black enough to include multiple murders and dismemberments, Chris Niles’ Hell’s Kitchen zeroes in on the essential New York experience, apartment hunting: “It was the one thing that could draw tears of sympathy from the most battle-scarred New Yorker. It was as unifying as war, because they’d all been through it.” To make the experience even more warlike, Ms. Niles unleashes a serial killer, Cyrus Tower, a confused and inept 30-year-old rich kid who lures his victims by advertising a Village sublet. For sex appeal, she throws in the gorgeous, conniving Tye Fischer, a Brit who needs a place to stay in Manhattan but prefers to come by it illegally, or at least immorally. For charm, we’re handed William Quinn, a would-be writer who finds it easier to seduce than to craft sentences. Quinn is sleeping on his brother’s sofa while he looks for his own place. His job? Writing fortune-cookie quips.
The urban pulse comes in part from quick and lively jump-cuts. Ms. Niles rarely sticks with one character for more than a page or so. She flits between her three principals and a clamorous supporting cast that includes a TV reporter, a middle-aged Midwestern mom searching for a missing son, a Park Avenue grandee, a fashion designer and a Dumpster diver. The plot meanders-but that’s the point. Ms. Niles scatters her crew across the city and lets them ricochet around: “No matter what the spin doctors of the new Manhattan said, it was still a science lab of lunacy.” In the end, everyone converges-improbably, disastrously-in one wisecrack-and-blood-splattered space (which is, natch, advertised for rent).
Hell’s Kitchen is utterly unpretentious, its only aim being to engage the reader. I’m happy to say it succeeds-despite Ms. Niles’ lazy habit of settling for the familiar phrase instead of amusing us with something fresh (Tye has “the sullen good looks of a supermodel”); her sloppiness (there’s no such designer as “San Laurent,” and people don’t watch movies “avariciously”); and her preference for the broadest-gauge satire (on Rudy Giuliani’s sanitized New York: “Give me your poor, your huddled masses and we’ll drive them out of town”).
What’s the secret ingredient that gives this novel its deliciously Gotham flavor? An outsider slant: Chris Niles is a recent arrival, a New Zealander who led a peripatetic life before settling down in Brooklyn. Tye Fischer, another recent arrival, knows she has to “get New York in a headlock before it trample[s] all over her.” Ms. Niles’ embrace of the city is just as fervent; she loves it, killers and all.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer .