MATTHEW BRANTON – House of Whacks. Bloomsbury, paperback, April 1999.

   House of Whacks got some poor reviews on the net, mostly, I think, from reviewers who were either turned off by the cover, or turned on by it and then disappointed by the contents. Both camps missed the point of a book I found witty, suspenseful and deeply moving at times.

   The story opens in Chicago, 1950, where Susan, an aspiring chorus girl, is making ends meet [insert joke] by posing for bondage photos. Branton wisely plays this for character rather than titillation. Also he seems to have researched the mail-order kinky porn business of that day pretty thoroughly, and he injects just enough detail to make it happen for the reader.

   We quickly shift however, to an unnamed first-person narrator in another part of town who turns out to be a fifty year old woman dying of cancer, wrapping up her publishing business (she has a dozen writers working for her under one pen name) and reflecting with wry humor on her past (“…we gazed at each other with eyes as clear and innocent as a couple of Florida real estate brokers.”) as a Hollywood Screenwriter. Again, I was impressed with the author’s knowledge of the movie scene and small-time mid-century publishing, and with his skill at evoking them.

   In short order, the Mob moves in on the porno racket, Susan meets a nice young mobster with visions of moving the Mafia into more legitimate enterprises because that’s where the money is, and the nameless narrator starts hatching plans for a big-time heist that will leave her dead and her unemployed ghost-writers well-off for life.

   Author Branton handles these disparate elements (and several more) with a sure hand. He seems well-steeped in the movie business, Mob politics, publishing and slow death, and he moves the story along quickly, with just enough detail to ground it in reality (for Fiction, that is) but he’s not afraid to sit back and indulge his characters in some genuine emotion.

   The narrator makes her case for not getting cancer treatment in a scene that actually echoed things I’ve heard from others in the same situation. And her last meeting with her estranged ex-husband rang so heart-wrenchingly true that I forgot all about the Heist coming up just a few pages away.

   The result may be a bit surreal for some tastes, but I found House of Whacks just off-the-wall enough to make a fast and fun read. Don’t know if I’ll seek out any more by Branton, but I’ll definitely remember this one.