annotation by Kate Maruyama
I was hoping for a book in which to lose myself. I’d been doing too much research for the book I’m working on and not enough reading. Fortunately, before a weekend at the beach, UNTOUCHABLE by Scott O’Connor came in the door. I was immediately drawn into our two main characters, Darby, who works for a cleaning service that cleans up after murder/suicide/death scenes and his son, Whitley, known as The Kid, who has taken a vow of silence despite his penchant for talk shows.
O’Connor paints a very vivid LA, as our story takes place on the edge of Echo Park just off Sunset and at the Everclean cleaning service in a lost corner of Glendale overlooking the river–a corner I happen to know well. The writer gives us details of streets, textures, colors and things to look at without bogging us down in geographical details—there’s no “at the corner of this and that, where the metro stop is.” It’s a case for letting your reader get into a physical space, rather than worrying about the geography. The writer knows exactly where his characters are, but it’s subtly portrayed. Through the Kid’s eyes, O’Connor gives us his neighborhood, including a massive mural in an underpass, which is being continuously covered by graffiti—the kid tries to capture it in a drawing before it’s completely obscured.
O’Connor reminds us that every intimate corner of any city has character, even the bleakest ones. There is as much for a reader to experience with the senses on a bleak street corner with a rundown bus stop as there is in a plush forest ridden with wildlife. The Darbys’ chipped cement front porch and barred windows with their ever present pickup truck out front are an indelible backdrop for narrative. The trick is to pay attention to the details, no matter where you are.
O’Connor also manages to use physical landscape as metaphor, from the dog who was stuck in the sewers beneath the Darby’s street for days (who comes out as damaged as the topdwellers,) to the closet where Darby’s associate loses his mind from going to his cleanup job alone. Every nuance of place is utilized and described to its full extent–an apartment above a Chinese restaurant, a hotel room where the suicide victim thoughtfully lay out plastic first, Darby’s garage where their life is cartoned off and secrets are hidden in drawers behind boxes. Even a blank spot on a bulletin board above Darby’s wife’s tiny desk becomes a force to be reckoned with.
The Kid and Darby have pretty wretched lives when we meet them—the Kid is routinely beaten up at school and is mentally abused by the school guidance counselor who seems to think the problem lies with him. He leads a perilous game of survival and he plots several different ways home from school to avoid his tormentors. He holds a hope that the story of his mother’s death is untrue, that she has run away. The Kid had a life ambition of becoming a talk show host, so he gives up the one thing he treasures most in an exchange with God–he won’t speak until his mom comes back. In the Kid’s shoes, told in close third person, we are given an unreliable point of view—a boy whose very trauma has messed with his line of thinking. And his twisted line of thinking is what keeps the reader on precarious, but fascinating ground. The mere unpredictability in his actions kept me turning pages. What will he do next?
Darby, the kid’s father is dealing with the loss of his wife by sleeping in the truck out front of the house and is has a growing unease with his job cleaning up after crime scenes. His point of view is also unreliable as we sense that he is coming unhinged. Darby fights off a “speck” in his throat, which at first appears only at a moment when he photographs the cleaned up crime scene, then later throughout. O’Connor weaves a careful narrative through Darby’s mind, and we descend into madness with him. But with physical details and Darby’s particular obsessiveness, we are never lost in his madness—we always know where we are, each terrifying step of the way. In both of these characters, we are fully immersed in their points of view, which are so particular and breathtakingly human, it is a difficult book to put down.
Both Darby and the Kid are tremendously likeable, from Darby’s nightly fried fish dinners with his boss, Bob, to his memories of and love for his wife and the sheer range of emotions he goes through every day he shows up on the job. The Kid has a fantasy talk show he can no longer perform due to his covenant, a motley pair of friends who change his life in unexpected ways, and an ability to find true beauty and meaning in the unlikeliest of places. A burned out house becomes a magical place that affects his life profoundly.
O’Connor finds a deep beauty in the every day and in bleakness itself through the eyes of his characters. Darby’s adoption of a hopelessly ill dog who is covered in sores and won’t let anyone near it ends up being one of the most life-changing actions of the books. The result is a heartbreaking very human beauty.
I’ve lived in LA for over twenty years and I set my first book in New York, my second book in present day Baltimore and 1930s Los Angeles, but this next one I’m working on has finally landed at home in present day LA. Scott O’Connor has made me more aware of every detail in the everyday, and how creating a psychic landscape can function on many deeper levels than just putting characters in a place. While this read was very useful to me as a writer, as a reader, I have to say it was one of the loveliest, absorbing and most moving books I’ve read in a while.