There is a certain kind of book that I always pick up and never wind up liking as much as its dust jacket would have had me expect. Carl Hiaasen was the last person to woo me this way. Everything about him sounded promising: oddball characters, political undertones, absurd situations. But when I read Sick Puppy back in August, it never quite sucked me in. It sounded like it should be a good book date, but there was no chemistry between us. The odds of a second date seem slim.
When I saw Punch Line in a local bookshop (currently only available in Canada), I was similarly intrigued. With a plot that focuses on the vigilantism of a group of seniors in a care home, who wouldn’t be? Plus, the book is written by Joey Slinger, a long-time columnist for the Toronto Star.
The ragtag justice-seeking group at old folks’ home is led by Ballantine, whose mission began after his wife’s death:
Ballantine didn’t realize that he was about to become a legendary serial killer at a time of life when most people weren’t about to become anything except gaga or dead. What he did realize was that the task he had set himself would never be completed if he had to take care of all the administrative details, such as doing his laundry and buying TV dinners and putting them in the oven and discovering two hours later that he hadn’t turned it on. He needed a support system, and that was why he arranged to move into The Cloister, a residential facility.
The book invites us to join the committee that works with Ballantine to carry out a series murderous deeds. We come to understand their selection criteria (being evil ranks high on the list) and their methodology (Rube Goldberg like plans created with an eye towards poetic justice). These committee members take their work very seriously, making their choices with the utmost care, until the arrival of someone who might be a detective wrenches up the complex works.
So, on one level, the book is about a bunch of geriatric Super Friends.
There’s another level to the book, though, and it’s the one that was more interesting to me and the weird form of ADD I have that seems to preclude my getting into quirky crime novels. The interesting part of the book is that part that asks: what does it mean to get old?
At least he was busy. But in time he began to ask himself whether there might be more to life than keeping busy. Sometimes he even wondered whether there was more to life than life. As far as the life he was leading went, Ballantine sometimes got the feeling he’d had it.
The residents of The Cloisters, at least those who are part of the committee, are not going gently into the night. Although the facility has an astounding turnover rate and treats its “guests” as essentially interchangeable, these seniors have taken on personalities that are even larger than themselves. They become Mt. Rushmore and V8 and John Dillinger. In the last weeks or months or years of life, they are choosing whole new lives for themselves, which is an act of brilliant subversion, really. While the “gagas” whither to nothing by forgetting themselves, the committee members are becoming more than they were in their pasts.
I was struck by the parallel between the motivations of these senior citizens and the common cliches about trouble-making teenagers.
“You just changed one kind of filling in your day for another one,” Mt. Rushmore said, nodding to emphasize his insight.
“Killing assholes. It kept you busy.”
Somehow, I don’t think Slinger was advocating decoupage and bingo as a means to keep seniors out of trouble, but I do think what he has to say about their place in society — invisible, powerless, bored — is the most fascinating aspect of the book.
(By the way, if you are in Toronto and you want to get a copy of Punch Line signed by the author himself, make the trip to Sleuth of Baker Street for their November 22 event.)
(More reviews available at Fourth-Rate Reader.)