- Unsteady Detective
The world of Z.K. Burrus's Senestre on Vacation is a damp, bitter one. Thomas Senestre, the figure at the center of the story, is sponge-like. His apartment overlooks a pool. He soaks himself with alcohol (at a bar called The Bog, no less). He wanders beaches at night. More than that, though, he slogs. The work is constructed with short, sharp sentences—phrases, biting mantras—that belie the dullness of the work.
The central figure of the work, Senestre is a less-than-mediocre cop. In the opening chapter, he relates to his partner the set-up for the mystery: he's received a letter from a mysterious woman claiming to be a friend of his mother's. The woman beckons him to come to her town and protect her from a stalker. Senestre's partner's take on the matter, mulled over beer: "My verdict: why the hell not?" And so Senestre leaves his dismal life behind and, before him, discovers an equally dismal hotel and seashore.
Senestre suffers from insomnia; as such, he is as grouchy as one expects a non-sleeper to be. In terms of describing the looks of those around him, he's as vicious as a plastic surgeon with debts to pay. Six pages into the work, he makes note of the saddlebags of one woman. Similarly, on a man, Senestre notes "sunken eyes, skin folds, and a pleated neck." He imagines gripping a woman he's nicknamed "Globe Face the Elder" (as she has a daughter whose face is equally globular) and choking her with her "double chin forced upwards."
For the record, he also hates boats ("they and their monotonous motion...play on his nerves"), a collection of wreaths he comes across in a local store ("They were hideous...dead leaves curled around a lopsided center"), and tight spaces ("Never had he liked tight spaces. He liked them less in the company of others"). He is fascinated by his own hatred, rolling it over in his mind, and it becomes the overwhelming trait of not only his character, but the narration and narrative focus. Because he is fascinated, it seems to be assumed that the reader will also be fascinated. If we aren't, the text would threaten, our chins, too, might be in danger.
In a sense, Senestre's unwaveringly vile voice can be compared to the sketches in a Peanuts cartoon: so marked, so distinctive, that the world becomes both clear and static. There are no surprises. Dog, as portrayed by Charles Schultz, looks one way; football, as portrayed by Schultz, looks the same each time Charlie Brown looks to kick. The world of Senestre on Vacation is similar in that we, as readers, know how the world will look before we see the world. The women are fat and ugly. The men are ugly and drunk. Everything is moist. And Senestre can't quite figure out how to kick a football.
Senestre enjoys watching himself, commenting on himself—you get the sense that he's an inept cop because he's his own favorite suspect. In his commentary, nothing new is revealed. He describes himself as being in "[a] cerebral boxing match." The novel uses third-person narration, which is a strange choice—it commands to be in first person. The third person requires that we believe that two people, Senestre and his narrator (or, for the more religious oriented, one man and one very dismayed God) care about what this middle-aged, alcohol-infused man has to fuss about.
Compounding the problem is that the mystery element seems prodded into the book. The mystery genre typically boasts large stakes—it's the Vegas of genres, all flash and smoke and glitz. But in this mystery, the stakes are quite low. The woman being stalked is presented as "a vain woman who demanded constant pampering and got it." The vice-grip of the narrative sourness is such that we cannot judge for ourselves whether this characterization is fair, or if Senestre simply needs...