A few years ago I took a break from my excessively wholesome diet of quality literature to go grazing in the world of trash. I read celebrity biographies, airport thrillers, detective stories - even new age twaddle like Paulo Coehlo's The Alchemist. Some discoveries gave rise to new reading habits, while others - such as the Coehlo - led only to envy of the author's stupendous wealth and amazement he could get away with it. Nothing, however, gripped me like the "true crime" stories.
I'll qualify that - the tiresome British sub-genre of Retired Cockney Gangster memoirs and the profound tomes on EVIL produced by some Great Men and Women of American Letters (obviously not defined as trash anyway) did nothing for me. No: the books I really enjoyed were the ultra-lurid accounts of teenage murder sprees and serial killers churned out by an invisible army of bored housewives, provincial crime desk journalists, ex-cops and burned-out film studies graduates. I thought they were describing a very real world of nihilistic violence that more "respectable" authors (and perhaps readers) feared to understand.
The first author to get me hooked was John Douglas, a retired FBI agent whose Mindhunter is a fascinating and highly detailed/salacious account of the cases he worked on as one of the first criminal profilers in the Bureau. Mindhunter cleverly contains a sufficient amount of 'scientific' detail to seduce the reader into thinking he is becoming an expert on humanity's dark side, while simultaneously serving as a fig leaf for the true appeal of the book. The one true crime masterpiece I have read displays no such concern for the shame-faced, however. Its title, bold white caps against a throbbing red background, leapt out at me from the shelf in a Chicago thrift store one day: Lobster Boy, by Fred Rosen.
This cheap supermarket paperback, first published in 1995, is the story of Grady Stiles Jr., a man born with "lobster claws" instead of feet and hands, who, from the 1940s through to the 1990s, toured the USA exhibiting himself in carnival tents. His career came to an abrupt halt in 1992 as a result of several bullets fired into the back of his head while he was watching TV in a trailer park in Florida (16 PAGES OF SHOCKING PHOTOS!). The killer was a moronic teenage stoner who had been paid $1500 by Stiles' (able-bodied) wife Mary Teresa to liberate her from the burden of an abusive, alcoholic husband.
This may sound like Jerry Springer territory, but it is not. There is no hillbilly freak show humour, it is not reenacted for the cameras in a studio by coached guests and it doesn't end after an hour with a comedy "moral". In fact, Rosen relates this squalid, hopeless tale in perhaps the flattest narrative voice ever applied to paper. Bludgeoning the reader with details of Stiles' sexual exploits with his claw, his brutal violence against women and his unpunished shooting of his daughter's fiance in the back, he mixes in short vignettes about Stiles' equally unfortunate acquaintances, such as Midget Man, a diminutive disabled ex-welder.
The words thud down like bricks, enclosing the reader, Poe-like, in a suffocating dark box where life is defined by alcoholism, poverty, misery, violence and loveless copulation ... until the end, that is, when the narrative suddenly takes a shockingly avant garde turn as Fred Rosen, hitherto a completely blank, almost bored narrator, steps into the text as a character. But relax - this isn't a bizarre postmodernist trick. He was working on the book up to, during and after the trial of Stiles' wife and uncovered some facts along the way that he had to testify before the court about. Totally unexcited by his own shift from observer to participant, he relates this twist in the same colourless, disengaged voice as always.
Turgid, brutal, pornographic, depressing, unremittingly bleak, Lobster Boy goes on for over 300 pages. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It stains your fingers. You may have to shower after reading it. There is no redemption; there are no insights to be drawn. Even the typeface is ugly. And yet Rosen fully succeeds in opening up two realities, ignored by most writers, that are known to outsiders only through caricature, depicting them with an unflinchingly clear eye: firstly, the closed world of the travelling sideshow, and secondly, and perhaps more interestingly, the neglected American hinterlands of dollar stores, crap restaurants, bad jobs, semi-educated teenage dope heads and immensely bored, utterly marginalised, deeply unhappy people.
One last thing: Fred Rosen followed Lobster Boy with a book called Body Dump. As you can see, he has a way with titles.
Originally published in the Guardian, 2007.