Calling Mr. King
Ronald De Feo
Other Press, 2011
They say music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, and culture’s civilizing qualities have been the root of many a liberal arts education. In his debut novel, Calling Mr. King, Ronald De Feo takes this notion and runs with it: Can art transport us? Does it have redemptive powers? Can beauty truly liberate us from the trenches of the 9-5 world?
From Bartleby to Then We Came to the End, novels of day-job burnout have been rich ground for schadenfreude or commiseration, depending on which side of the cubicle the reader is on. For De Feo’s nearly-nameless protagonist it’s a deadly serious business. By trade a hit man, and an extremely good one at that, he finds himself in the throes of mid-career fatigue. And like any other company man who’s devoted a lifetime to honing his skills and has made himself a comfortable niche, it’s the daily grind, not the morality, that trips him up:
Odd thoughts were entering my head again. And like before I had no idea where they were coming from. Odd, crazy thoughts: another job just about done, after running stupidly about for weeks, all the tracking, waiting, time spent and wasted, and what do you get but another dead body, then on to the next hit, another city, another bastard to track, another doomed man, to be taken out by me or someone else, it really made no difference, dead is dead. The same story, the same routine. You pull the trigger, the man falls. But what if you didn’t pull the trigger? That would be different. That might even be exciting. That would change everything.
Such thoughts, however, are anathema to his line of work—anyone’s line of work, now that you mention it, although most of us would be more worried about getting laid off for them than bumped off. Still, work is work, and our antihero is ramping up to one serious job-related existential crisis.
Nameless, featureless, he has no particular identity other than his employment. We get glimpses, as the book progresses, of how he came to this calling—poverty, an uninspiring, bullied childhood with lots of guns around—but mostly he’s a blank slate. It’s his greatest asset on the job, along with his intense detachment from just about everything. He is eloquent, a little high-minded; he speaks of completing a hit on a mark as a way to “end his vacation abruptly.” But mostly he’s just your basic, affect-neutral contract assassin.
Until, of course, that stops working for him. First it’s those odd thoughts, then a near-botched job out in the English countryside. A vacation, he thinks, might be in order, though his company has not been historically warm to vacations. But the collateral damage he incurs in Derbyshire prompts the suggestion that he lie low for a while—which, in his business, is as close to a vacation as he’s going to get. They put him up in a swanky New York hotel, and he finds himself, for once, with time, rather than someone, to kill.
I surveyed the restaurant crowd—a majority of chit-chatting lady shoppers, a few men with their wives, a few tourists. Just another Saturday afternoon out. Hard to believe, I thought, but I was out for the day too. At least for now, I resembled them. This was what it was like to spend a normal, ordinary, slightly boring day. I sort of liked the feeling. I sort of liked the boredom. I sort of liked everyone remaining alive.
In addition, as a somewhat random byproduct of stalking people on the English heath, he’s developed an interest in Georgian manor houses. At first they feature in restful fantasies of where he, a chronic hotel dweller, would like to live; gradually he becomes fascinated with their architectural detail and history. He buys a reference book—quite possibly the first book he’s ever purchased—and then another, and another. Soon he’s on a familiar basis with the clerks at Rizzoli, spending time in the New York Public Library’s Main Reading Room, “a huge old banquet hall for book lovers,” and examining Constable paintings at the Frick. His slow evolution as a patron of the arts is fun to follow, especially as it doesn’t trumps his basic crudeness; his first thought, on reading of Paris’ Place des Vosges, is that he recently killed someone near there. But he’s learning the language as he goes—of architecture, of art, of how to be a feeling man in an unfeeling world. All this from a fellow whose idea of personal growth, thus far, had been to become a better shot:
I liked these a lot. None of the heavenly crap that filled the wop paintings. The Dutch were definitely more down-to-earth. Trees, dirt roads, streams, cottages, water mills, windmills, a horse and cow here and there. They were peaceful pictures, showing country areas you wouldn’t mind living in. Of course, I preferred a somewhat more elegant country life, and the trees were too big and the shrubbery too wildfire my taste, but if you were Dutch and weren’t loaded with cash, this kind of existence wasn’t half bad.
Fortunately for us, though, he never loses his native petulance. Wandering around New York with his art books under his arm, he brings to mind an overgrown Holden Caulfield gone very, very bad, which is a good thing. For all its intermittent bloodshed, this is not an action-packed novel, and it couldn’t survive its protagonist’s transformation into an exemplary man of culture. We need his rough edges to keep things unpredictable, and fortunately De Feo never falls back onto easy epiphanies for him. Our man may be ready to get out of the business, but it’s not due to any particular dawning ethical consciousness. He just wants to look at more architecture.
Eventually his employers call him back to work, however, with a hit in Barcelona, and he’s forced to choose—not so much between his baser and better selves, but between work and Gaudí. It’s a reasonable dilemma. And after dawdling through the streets of the world’s capitals and puzzling out what, exactly, the aesthetic world has to offer, De Feo gives us a satisfyingly architectural ending. This is a strange, dark, funny book—in that order, I think—and his begrudgingly solipsistic narrator is one of the odder antiheroes I’ve come across. But Calling Mr. King is an interesting little meditation on the redemptive powers, or not, of art, and for those of us who spend our time reading novels in the first place, it’s not a bad thing to consider.