Book Review: A Lonely Man by Chris Power
A Lonely Man by Chris Power is an existential mystery that explores the uncertain intersection between fiction and reality and the disastrous consequences of a chance encounter.
In a Berlin bookstore, two Englishmen meet while reaching for the same volume of Bolaño. Robert Prowe is an author with an acute case of writer’s block, constantly putting off his agent and publishers while balancing his life as a loving husband to Karijn and slightly grumpy father to their two little girls, Nora and Sonja. He’s a respectable family man if self-conscious of being the stereotypical author unable to produce his sophomore work, a novel meant to follow up on his successful debut collection of stories.
Patrick Unsworth is drunk and down on his luck, and a mixture of circumstance and compassion finds Robert sympathetically listening to Patrick’s woes. A successful ghostwriter himself, Patrick had been hired by Sergei Vanyashin, an exiled Russian oligarch and outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin, to help author Vanyashin’s memoirs. But when Vanyashin dies of an apparent suicide, Patrick takes fright and flees England for the continent, afraid that whoever killed his boss might also have him on their hit list. For Vanyashin had confided quite a bit of incriminating evidence to his amanuensis, evidence that might make him a valuable target for Russian hitmen himself.
Robert isn’t sure whether to take Patrick seriously, but he’s certainly drawn to the tale Patrick is telling—so much so that he decides to use it as the basis for a story, perhaps even his next novel. Karijn gets wind of this and urges her husband to come clean with Patrick about using the other man’s life as inspiration. Robert agrees that it’s the ethical thing to do but, for whatever reason, doesn’t get around to it, even after meeting with Patrick several more times and unspooling more of Patrick’s story. Robert thus has to think fast when Karijn makes an innocent proposal.
‘Maybe invite him for dinner.’
‘No,’ he said automatically. He hadn’t expected her to suggest it.
She laughed. ‘Is it such a terrifying thought?’
‘No, it’s—’ Robert tried to think of the most off-putting response. ‘I guess it’s just that I don’t know how much of what he’s telling me is genuine. It’s a good story, but you remember what he was like the night we met him. I’m worried he might be a bit, I don’t know, unpredictable.’
Karijn pulled away and looked at him. ‘You don’t think he’s actually dangerous, do you?’
Robert drew in a deep breath, as if evaluating. ‘I’d say probably not,’ he said slowly. ‘But I’d want to be certain before I invited him into our home.’
The question of whether Patrick is telling the truth and surrounded by danger or whether he’s delusional and perhaps the more dangerous for it makes up a large part of this elegant literary thriller. Robert encourages Patrick to keep sharing his story despite growing increasingly uncomfortable with what he sees as the other man’s paranoia. Surely there can’t actually be government-sponsored hitmen out to get a mere writer. Surely these people Patrick claims are following him are merely innocent passersby.
But even as Robert dissociates Patrick’s desperation from reality, he’s writing his own version of Patrick’s life, padding things a little here, adding his own motivations there. When Patrick inevitably discovers what Robert has been doing, he’s understandably upset, for more reasons than one. Robert, however, has his justifications:
‘I don’t see what you’re getting so angry about,’ Robert said. ‘You told your story to a novelist. This is what novelists do. They take things that happen to people and they … tweak them.’
‘Steal them. Cheapen them.’
Robert dropped his head back and sighed as he looked up at the ceiling. ‘Yes, fine, cheapen them.’
‘I thought I was talking to a friend, not a novelist.’
As the two men grapple with the boundaries of their relationship and with the ethics of writing, Robert must also come to terms with his own ideas of morality and mortality. Worryingly, his own life is beginning to display parallels with Patrick’s. Is Patrick’s paranoia contagious, or are people really out to get them both?
I greatly enjoyed the story within a story presented here, especially since Chris Power loosely draws from his own life to fill out the details, creating a third metaphysical layer for readers to unfold. Rarely have the ethics and craft of fictionalization made for such compelling, thrilling reading. Too often, the juxtaposition of genres—particularly one so vital as crime with the more inward-facing studies of the literary—makes for a dull or confusing read as authors choose the form of intellectualism over the function of entertainment. Mr. Power, however, deftly balances his influences to present a suspenseful yet still thoughtful novel of trust and belief and what we, writers or otherwise, owe to the people we spin our stories around.