Fresh Meat: Savage Lane by Jason Starr

Savage Lane by Jason Star is a thrilling noir that offers up a searing satire of a declining marriage, suburban life, and obsessive love (available October 13, 2015).

“Every town has its secrets.” That’s the tagline that appears across the top of the cover to Jason Starr’s new crime novel Savage Lane. But some words straight out of the book could have served that function just as well: “you never knew what was going on in other people’s lives.” Savage Lane is a work of suburban noir that looks at the dark side of the goings-on in seemingly “normal” peoples’ existences.

Because this is a new book and one that’s not being released until October, I want to be especially careful not to commit spoilers in writing about it. So I will just detail the basic setup and then avoid giving away more plot. There are several minor characters in Savage Lane, which has four major players. Two of those four are a married couple named Mark and Deb Berman. Both 44, the two have been wedded for 17 years. They have two kids, aged 16 and 12, and they live in the New York suburb of Westchester, on Savage Lane. Mark is in middle management for Citibank and Deb is a stay-at-home mom. Their marriage is in trouble. Deb has a drinking problem. Another of the primary characters is Mark’s and Deb’s neighbor, Karen Daily. Karen is a 42-year old divorcee and mother of two kids who are close in age to the Berman children. She works as a speech pathologist at an elementary school. Karen dates a lot, using online services to find potentially appropriate men. She’s not necessarily looking for her next husband but is open to the idea if she meets the right guy. Finally, there’s Owen Harrison. Owen is 18 and not doing much with his life since graduating from high school. He has a crap job at the country club to which the Bermans and Karen Daily belong. At home he is routinely victimized by his physically abusive stepfather; and his mother, who is also bullied by the slovenly man, doesn’t do anything to protect herself or Owen from the egregious mistreatment her vicious husband visits upon them.

Deb Berman and Owen Harrison are having an affair. Well, it’s more accurate to just say they have sex a lot. Mark Berman wants to become involved with Karen Daily and is becoming obsessed with her.

Savage Lane is a disturbing novel, on a couple different levels. In that way, it is in keeping with most of Jason Starr’s crime fiction. Part of what distinguishes Starr’s writing is his willingness to go to places in his characters’ doings, that most would find uncomfortable to witness. He’s excellent at providing the details that make the people in his books come to life for the reader, and he specializes in showing the thought patterns and actions of people who are coming apart and becoming dangerous. I’ve been an avid reader of noir fiction for decades now, and I favor the harder-edged writers who work in this vein; yet there are times when even I feel like looking away from the page as Starr describes the explosive, hard-to-watch doings of one his volatile characters. I had this same experience with Savage Lane.

Of course, it’s that same unflinching gazing into the more turbulent aspects of human nature, that is such a part of what makes Starr’s writing so effective, and so memorable. Something else he does extraordinarily well, as mentioned above, is how he brings out where his characters are in their lives by detailing their present actions and ways of thinking. There’s one scene early in Savage Lane that says it all about how things are with Deb Berman at the time of the story: it’s a weekend morning and she is simultaneously getting her kids ready for extracurricular activities, texting with her teenage lover, and taking secret nips of vodka. Here’s a different segment involving Deb, another one that clarifies her present state:

She made a cup of coffee in the Keurig machine and then read at the kitchen table, sipping. She still felt like shit, but it wasn’t just the alcohol in her system – it was everything. Sometimes life seemed so exhausting and overwhelming and, worse, she knew she was responsible for making it this way. Seriously, how many forty-four year-old women would kill for what she had? A four-bedroom house in Westchester, a successful, hard-working husband, two amazing kids. Maybe she was bored, maybe that was her whole problem. She used to work for a market research firm but had to quit when Riley was born. She didn’t want to go back to her old career, but she’d always wanted to paint. She used to have talent, had taken a couple of art classes in college and loved it. She could go to art school in the city a couple of days a week – she’d already checked out the Art Students League online – and she had plenty of space to make an art studio in the basement. It would be amazing to live a creative lifestyle, meet new, interesting, creative-type people in the city. All she had to do was take the first step, register for a class, but she had forgotten how to be proactive, how to do things for herself.

In addition to containing compelling characters, Savage Lane is rich in bracing suspense. I like Starr’s writing so much that I want to carefully take in every word of his novels, yet as this increasingly flammable story raged on in the direction of its conclusions, I found myself wanting to flip ahead to find out what would ultimately become of its characters. I did read every word, but I also found it difficult to not race ahead to the end when I got to the final few chapters. That’s my personal testament to how thrilling I found the book, because I almost never get hit with the desire to quickly get to the finish line when reading a novel of any kind.

SEE ALSO: Revisit Jason Starr's debut thriller Cold Call!

Something else the book has going for it, and this is another Starr continuum, is humor. There is violence and there are other brain-bothering aspects of the story, but along with all the rages and all the turmoil, Starr manages to work in some passages that should evoke hearty laughter from his audience. The humor in his books is often of the bleak variety, yes, many times comes via his showing just how completely unhinged and scary his characters have become; but the laughs are there. Following is a paragraph from Savage Lane that shows how Starr works chuckle inducements into his tales. This is early in the story, before things have really escalated:

Mark stripped to his boxers and then washed up and got ready for bed. He knew he looked great for forty-four. He was losing some hair from the top and around the sides, and he probably needed to lose ten, okay fifteen, pounds, but he was definitely aging well, just starting to hit his prime. If he was single now, on those dating sites like Karen, man he would’ve cleaned up. How many guys his age even had hair? He didn’t have a lot of wrinkles and a couple women at work had complimented his eyes. What had Erica McCarthy, in HR, said? Oh, yeah, that he had a “dark, brooding, Javier Bardem look.” The comment had gone straight to Mark’s head even though he had to Google Javier Bardem to make sure he knew who he was.

Finally, what makes Savage Lane go is just its very noir-ness. Jason Starr takes the fierceness of a Jim Thompson or Harry Whittington novel and employs that kind of fire in authoring works of noir that are both reminiscent of books by writers such as those two, yet fully contemporary. His writing bears his own, unmistakable, powerful stamp. If you like hard-edged crime fiction, or are already a fan of Starr’s work, this new book will not let you down.

Savage Lane is a novel that asks its readers to take some leaps in believing its characters are capable of the outrageous acts they take. And it’s one that might make you start looking at your neighbors, co-workers, and other people who flit in and out of your life, and wonder which of these seemingly average individuals might be secretly performing behaviors, and/or thinking in ways, that threaten the foundations of their own lives, as well as the lives of those close to them.

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Brian Greene's short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in more than 20 different publications since 2008. His articles on crime fiction have also been published by Crime Time, Paperback Parade, Noir Originals, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.

See all posts by Brian Greene for Criminal Element.

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