Psychodisney

Peter Robins

  • Depraved Indifference by Gary Indiana
    HarperCollins, 336 pp, US $24.95, January 2002, ISBN 0 06 019726 9

Some years ago, Gary Indiana visited Eurodisney, and returned with a suggestion for how it could be improved. ‘If I ran an amusement park,’ he wrote, ‘there would be real pirates and gypsies and an authentic criminal element on hand to supply a sense of risk.’ He constructs fiction on the same principle. His early works featured characters designed to resemble his past lives and former friends: a New York art critic in obsessive love (Horse Crazy); an American who acted in European art films (Gone Tomorrow). His fourth and fifth novels both contained accounts of real multiple murders, along with real bondage, real child abuse and real drugs. Depraved Indifference, his sixth, offers you a wider range of true-life attractions: four real murders, as you’d expect, and a probably-real case of incest; but also a houseful of real antiques, and a heroine who really does look like Elizabeth Taylor.

Call it Indiana for beginners. The previous books have added to their allure by an aggressive approach to some of the last few taboos: gay sex (particularly when allied to violence and/or manipulation); violence (particularly when allied to manipulation and/or sex); scatology. In Depraved Indifference, the sex is straight (if nasty), the violence is delayed, and the shit is more or less tidied away. Nothing really gruesome happens for at least the first hundred pages. Still, there’s plenty of reality. Depraved Indifference is not a transcript, or even a conventional roman à clef, but you are rarely more than a paragraph from some recognisable detail of the trial it was based on, and hardly ever in the presence of a fact that is incontestably made up. If you think that Evangeline, Warren and Devin Slote are silly names for a family of villains, you must remember that their originals are the even less plausible-sounding Sante, Kenneth and Kenny Kimes. If you think it a bit much to have them arrested on slavery charges and then carrying on as if nothing has happened, or to have their scams involve Gerald Ford and Pat Nixon, or to have the man who sells them illegal guns explain how to make a silencer from a potato, you must consider that all these things come straight from the Kimes family archive. And so may anything else. Somewhere in Las Vegas, there may actually be a car salesman who was once a ventriloquist. His dummy may really be called Joe McCarthy, and he may really be planning a comeback as a hip-hop act. His name may have been omitted from my cuttings. I can’t rule it out. I know that Indiana has bumped off at least one still-living character, and I am almost sure that Irene Silverman, the original of his lead murder victim, was never a synchronised swimmer. Beyond that, any of it could be true. Depraved Indifference is tangled and implausible, cruel and entertaining – but so were the reports of the Kimes case.

The reports began early in July 1998, soon after Irene Silverman disappeared. Silverman was 82, a rich and semi-famous New York landlady. Kenny Kimes had been renting a room from her, under a false name, and his mother, Sante, had been staying with him, pretending to be his employee. They had been engaged in an elaborate plan to steal Silverman’s apartment building. They were arrested the day Silverman disappeared, for buying a car with a bad cheque, and held for most of the next two years on fraud charges, while the authorities prepared to try them for murder.

At this point, the story should have entered a lull. It didn’t. Instead, details of the Kimeses’ past began to surface. Sante, it turned out, was the widow of another Kenneth, a millionaire motel developer, who died in 1994. Sante and Kenneth had form. Their photo had appeared in the Washington Post in the early 1970s, when they gatecrashed a party attended by Vice-President Ford – part of a scam to do with the selling of posters to schools. They’d been tried in 1986 for imprisoning servants and refusing to pay them (she got three years, he got three suspended; Kenny, aged ten, was accused of having sexually assaulted the maids). Sante had also been arrested solo – for stealing a fur coat, among other things. She had a stepdaughter who considered her ‘truly the epitome of everything evil’ and claimed that she had been involved in a plot to hide rattlesnakes in her car. She had a past that nobody could quite make out. She went by at least a hundred names, and she and her son were suspected of causing at least three other people to disappear: an informer for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a banker from the Cayman Islands and an old family friend.

In June 2000, Sante and Kenny were sentenced to a total of 245 years for the murder of Irene Silverman and 117 related offences. Because Silverman’s body was never found, the prosecution had to rely on a ‘landfill’ of circumstantial evidence. So the jury learned that Sante and Kenny shared a bed and that they asked their gun salesman for advice on home-made silencers. They were told that Sante, done up in a nightgown and a red wig, had impersonated Silverman in front of a notary (this on the top floor of Silverman’s house). They were also told about Silverman’s fear of leaving her house, and her suspicion of Kenny; about the eavesdropping, and various bits of ancillary fraud. They were shown Sante’s detailed notes on Silverman’s habits and how to exploit them, and the homeless guy she planned to install as a building supervisor. It took the foreman twenty minutes just to read out the verdicts.

Indiana’s first contribution is to give the story a quiet start. A relatively quiet start: he gives you the fraud and the theft before he gives you the murder and the incest. His second is to suppress the trial – although his narrative is based largely on trial exhibits – and, for good measure, everything that’s happened since. Sante and Kenny have now been moved to California, where they will stand trial for a second murder and probably be executed. Indiana ignores this. Devin Slote, unlike Kenny Kimes, never takes a TV reporter hostage; and if Evangeline Slote, like Sante Kimes, is played by Mary Tyler Moore in the TV movie, we never get to hear about it. The story is arrested, along with its protagonists, in July 1998.

For Indiana, this is a change of focus. In his other untrue-crime books – most notably Resentment, a bilious fantasia on the Menendez trial – lawyers and journalists are the chief targets of the satire. In Depraved Indifference, the media are nowhere and the trial may never take place. Where Resentment combines vengeful documentary satire with frenzied improvisation – it has a fictional Tourettic expert witness, an additional serial killer and an earthquake – Depraved Indifference binds its alterations closely to the record of criminal activity, and denies you any sort of wider air. You are wholly in the company of the Slotes and their marks.

The agent of these changes, and perhaps the reason for them, is Evangeline Slote: mother, confidence woman, sociopath and narrative engine. In Resentment – and in Three Month Fever, Indiana’s other exercise in this line – the murderers were weak and flailing, and the narrative imitated their fatal drift. Evangeline is overwhelmingly strong, and her appetite for the lives of others compels Indiana into structural tightness. There is no character so minor or abject that he can’t reappear as the name on one of Evangeline’s credit cards, or on the deeds of an incinerated building, or the board of a non-existent company. There is nobody she will not attempt to use:

She collected future marks like lottery tickets. She operated by reflex. Any public room was a pristine harvest of human information. Not just business cards, phone numbers, fax numbers and the like, but weaknesses, quirks, character flaws, delusional ambitions, risky dreams, medical problems, shaky marriages. Everybody came equipped with a panel of invisible buttons . . . If you had the right touch, if you knew how to press one button lightly and another button with a bit more force, you could make the emotional side of a person swing up and down as you wished.

Evangeline’s need to persuade and manipulate, and Indiana’s need to show how she succeeds, also force a tightening of prose. There’s direct speech (Indiana used to reserve quotation marks for sarcasm); there are few sentences more than seven or eight lines long. Even the ugly, drifting thoughts and conversations – a signature effect – have begun to congeal into one-liners: ‘Primm had something like the tallest Ferris wheel in Western Nevada, or the highest crime rate, Warren couldn’t recall which.’ The whole feel of Depraved Indifference – chaotic but fiercely directed – is a product of Evangeline’s will, and she’ll doubtless be considered its major achievement.

But she is also, by some distance, its least original character. Evangeline’s looks, her way of dressing, her biography and many of her tricks of speech are lovingly plagiarised from Sante Kimes. Much of the stuff that will end up quoted as proof of Indiana’s skill could equally be found in the two conventional true-crime accounts of the story, or the TV movie. What indicates Indiana’s skill are the bits you can’t quote. He suppresses the obvious, TV-movie key to Evangeline’s character – Sante’s claim to have been abused as a child – giving her a past that stretches no further than Sante’s 1961 shoplifting conviction. We read plenty of commentary from other characters on how Evangeline thinks; we are even permitted to eavesdrop on her when she’s calibrating the latest con; but we are never quite taken inside her head. Rather than a loud and squalid cliché (the nature, most probably, of the real Sante Kimes), you are left with a nagging, dangerous incompleteness.

Evangeline has the advantage of having a novel built around her. The quiet start allows her to seduce you; the truncated end allows her to escape. The important character in facilitating this seduction is her husband, Warren. Warren is a motel magnate (as in real life), an amateur entomologist who thinks of his wife as a rare orchid, or possibly a parasitic wasp. He’s also the novel’s true best achievement – a complex, sympathetic character conjured from scant evidence. His death brackets the first half, and its narrative oozes over thirty years in imitation of his final thoughts. Although there are chapters headed, Faulkner-style, with the names of characters, which occasionally mark a shift of perspective, Warren remains the governing spirit. His war record (as a heroic organiser of black-market catering and gambling in the Pacific theatre) is a well-executed attack on Bush-style Greatest Generation sentimentality. What matters, though, is his contribution to the story’s pacing. His attraction to Evangeline – she appeals, we’re told, to the side of his brain that he normally devotes to blackjack – mirrors a reader’s treaty with a dodgy character: he chooses to follow her because she makes things happen. His partial complicity in his wife’s spectaculars offers us a pleasant degree of danger, while concealing – at least until his brain is gone – the truly evil stuff. You are encouraged to view Evangeline’s machinations as elements in an unusually intricate farce. The consequences – a series of horrific pay-offs – come later.

Depraved Indifference is a black comedy with real corpses. Its trajectory is probably meant to remind you of a con trick; in fact, it’s more like an interlocking series of nasty practical jokes. Warren’s perspective supplies you with a sense of risk: personal, moral risk. Is it worse to laugh at a real death than it is to laugh at a fake one? Indiana’s flippant, logorrhoeic prose and his exuberantly invented or appropriated names – Ikea, Asraboth, Otis Lemming – ambush you into reading the documentary account of a murder as if it were simply another overplayed punch line.

The switch can be interpreted in several ways. You could assume that you are coming under satirical attack – that Depraved Indifference is a sly exposure of the incipient sociopathy of novel-readers. This would be perhaps the most comfortable option: Gary Indiana has some reputation as a moralist. He writes books in which bad things happen to bad people, and moral rage is the socially acceptable motive for that kind of thing. Your discomfort is evidence of virtue, or at least of the potential for correction. Alternatively, you could accept that the sick jokes are offered as sincere, amoral and true, and treat the novel as a rollercoaster at Psychodisney. Indiana’s views on morality and art, as expressed in his pamphlet on Pasolini’s Saló, suggest that this might be a sounder position:

I don’t think art has anything to do with morality, and it shouldn’t: I should be able to kill everybody I don’t like in a novel and get away with it, rape a 12-year-old and piss on my father’s grave. It’s not my job to tell anybody that these things are ‘wrong’. It’s my job to show that these things happen, period.

Certainly, one of the most striking features of Indiana’s writing is his refusal to let you feel good by agreeing with him. The emotions he evokes against negative characters – everybody in his books, that is – are uniformly unattractive: dislike, boredom, jealousy, snobbery, intellectual contempt, physical disgust. Laughing along with Gary Indiana is never a comfortable experience. But the second half of Depraved Indifference seems designed to stop you laughing altogether. The pace accelerates; the chapter divisions disappear. So does the involuted chronology. Instead, the narrative moves between the ménage of Baby Claymore – former synchronised swimmer and future murderee – and the ever more desperate scheming of Evangeline, which is now related directly. You’re trained to anticipate a pattern: each legal complexity or moment of preparation confided from the perspective of Devin or Evangeline, you come to fear, will be a step towards something horrific. In the space that the first half takes to bring you to one murder, the second half has three, and a number of unkilled minor characters sensible enough to fear for their lives.

There is even some attempt to raise sympathy for the prospective dead. A carefully arranged series of touches presents Baby Claymore as a fluffy alternative to Evangeline Slote: most of her charms without most of her teeth. Baby is permitted to quote (uncredited) Indiana’s thoughts on the decline of letter-writing, which suggests that he must rate her intellect. And the trait that those around her find most irritating – worrying about her new tenants – is a habit the reader shares. The penultimate victim, too, has a respectable idea of what’s coming to him, and a level of self-awareness unusual in an Indiana character.

At the same time, however, Indiana feels the need to compensate for Warren’s death by introducing a clutch of thinly comic media gargoyles. In Resentment, where they had a bearing on plot and theme, such creatures were bearable, even impressive. In Depraved Indifference, where they’re nothing more important than tenants of Baby, or temporary gulls of Evangeline, they are not bearable. I will blame Gary Indiana for Franny Frisani and Wilson Farmhole even if they exist.

There is also a stylistic barrier to sympathy. Indiana clearly fancies himself as a critic of pretentious language, and much of the time does the job effectively. We have both lecture on and demonstration of Evangeline’s ‘grandiose vocabulary’: her fraudulent telesales patter is perfectly managed, as are her notes to friends, family and slaves, and her self-righteous interview manner. Warren’s way with the ‘apt Republican phrase’, the self-pity of Franny Frisani, and the combination of the prissy and the vulgar current in Baby Claymore’s circle, are similarly well caught. But the most irritating pet words – ‘gelid’ (as in ‘her self-pity left him gelid’), ‘avid’, ‘asseverated’ – are Indiana’s own. You can play bingo with them in any one of his novels. Indiana is also responsible for the high level of background pretentiousness, a problem in a book that asks you to judge its characters by their language. When the homeless guy sees Evangeline gathering ‘every scrap of datum’, are we meant to mark him down as a clumsy pedant? When Baby finds her final moment ‘Cimmerian’, is the touch of Victorian campness hers? I can’t rule it out. And that diminishes her pathos, or at least distracts from it.

Now, if you assume – as I seem to be doing – that Indiana’s primary purpose is to unsettle his readers, to force self-examination without offering a method for reform, then this sort of slippage is not necessarily a problem. By introducing elements that appear to be true – the Indiana-like narrator of Horse Crazy, or the real crimes and passions of his three latest novels – Indiana gives his fiction the queasy, shifty texture of ordinary lying. He fills his books with mistrust. And a little more uncertainty can’t do any harm: a rollercoaster affects you more if you suspect it may be going off the rails. Only the object of the effort is in question. Indiana exerts tremendous energy and skill in reproducing sensations that can otherwise only be found in bad writing: self-serving memoirs, true-crime deathsploitation books. And he leaves himself open to the suspicion that his mangling of predigested narratives, and his virtuoso blurring of real and fake, conceal a lack of narrative control and a core of genuine fakeness. It’s a remarkable effect. Depraved Indifference is probably the subtlest way he has yet devised to induce it. Just pray he never opens the theme park.