Edwin Stith, a failed novelist and college writing instructor in upstate New York, is returning home for the weekend to Richmond, Virginia, to celebrate his mother's wedding—to a much younger man. Edwin has a peculiar relationship with the truth. He is a liar who is brutally honest. He may or may not be sleeping with his students, he may or may not be getting fired, and he may or may not have killed his ex-wife, a lover, and his brand-new stepsister.
Stith's dysfunctional homecoming leads him deep into a morass of long-gestating secrets and dangers, of old-flames still burning strong and new passions ready to consume everything he holds dear. But family dysfunction is only eclipsed by Edwin's own, leading to profound suspense and utter hilarity. Lee Irby has crafted a sizzling modern classic of dark urges, lies, and secrets that harks back to the unsettling obsessions of Edgar Allan Poe—with a masterful ending that will have you thinking for days.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Here’s the first clue: the dead will die again.
Not possible, you grumble. But a coward dies a thousand times and a brave man just once, and honestly I’m a bit of both. So is our narrator (that would be me) dead or alive? It doesn’t much matter, because my job is to deliver some blood on the very first page. Mine, hers, his. You want a body and I want to give you one.
This should be easy, since I’m on a killing spree. Actually, I’m just a college professor who drives a four--door Honda . . . but it just happens to be midnight in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the witching hour, when darkness hisses with spooky noises and creepy strangers contemplate unspeakable acts, such as luring a waitress into a fatal trap. Here comes one now, emerging from the Dumpster--shadowed rear of a TGI Fridays.
Even though I’m sitting in the Honda, she glances over in my direction, not suspiciously, more of a cursory assessment of her surroundings. There is a cell phone in my hand and you might want to know what I’m doing with it. I’ll divulge only that I was checking on the operating hours of the aforementioned TGI Fridays and just learned that it closes at midnight, which has just struck. So for a late dinner, I’ll have to rummage through a nearby convenience store. But first let me work up an appetite.
The waitress continues walking toward her car, which is parked not far from mine. Something tells me that she is unhappy with not just her life but all lives. Her work shift probably demeaned her in a million ways, from fussy manager to rude customers, and now she heads home to a cramped apartment and an aging cat whose vet bills she can ill afford. She isn’t scowling but more bemoaning in silence all that accosts her, and with grace and mercy I’ll end her troubles with a single shot to the head.
I jest. I don’t even own a gun! I understand I need to deliver a corpse, and I take this task seriously. It’s all I have left to live for. My goal? My ultimate purpose? I want you to disentangle. As the great Edgar Allan Poe tells us, the analyst “glories in that moral activity.” In the end what will we discover? That the dead never actually die? Or that the living never really live? In the city of Richmond, Virginia, the distinction between the living and the dead can get blurry, on account of the Confederate ghosts who haunt the cobblestone streets. And who is Richmond’s most celebrated literary son? Why, none other than Edgar A. Poe himself. Where did Poe spend the last few months of his life before he mysteriously died? Some say he was murdered, and if he was indeed targeted, his killers were to be found in, yes, Richmond, the RVA.
And me? Well, I’m driving to Richmond, as fate would have it, returning to my hometown for the first time in many years for my mother’s wedding, but you’ll have to wait for the details because I hate it when hack authors dump the backstory like a load of mulch.
The waitress is passing about fifteen feet in front of me. Time to pounce. I hop out of my car. “Can I ask you a question?” I call out to her just as she pushes a button to unlock her Soul (made by Kia). Butterflies flutter away in my empty stomach that churns with tumult. I adore women who teeter on the brink of collapse and I often dream of rescuing trapped damsels from bad boyfriends or crushing solitude.
“Sure,” she replies after some hesitation. She must’ve concluded that I pose little risk and thus has the uncanny ability to see right through me. Or she has a blind spot that will be her undoing.
“Is there a place nearby where I can get some decent food?”
She mulls over this question asked by someone she thinks is harmless. In her defense, it’s true that I appear to be an unlikely murderer. After all, my current occupation is Instructor of Composition, Notting College, a leafy liberal arts school in Ithaca, New York, a town better known for being the home of Cornell University, where the great Nabokov taught. My rented flat on North Plain Street sits across from the ballet academy whose prima ballerina was said to be the real--life inspiration for Lolita. The crone is over eighty now and can be found in the lobby of the YMCA, perched in a wheelchair while chain--smoking Lucky Strikes. I’ve been too ashamed to ask her about Vlad, and anyway talking to strangers makes my stomach cramp. And she’s probably a liar, like the rest of us.
But the salient question is: could I kill someone? Well, obviously. Under the right circumstances, anyone is capable of homicide. My closest friends, who number in the low single digits, would describe me as mild--mannered. My ex--wife would contend that I lacked the blind ambition to kill, and what great killer ever lacked the atavistic drive to dominate? My students have evaluated me as effective, somewhat bland, slow to return graded papers, but genial. So where is the red flag, the dark side, the demonic urge?
It is located in the bedroom, where it always resides, so let’s delve deeper into my primal cave. Do I possess a deviant sex life, perversions powerful enough to impel me to impulsive acts? Hey, remember that casual reference to my ex--wife? Of all people she’d be in the best position to offer credence to the Twisted Killer hypothesis now under discussion. Usually she’d love to tell you all about my major issues and hang--ups, but these days she’s too busy being in love with her new boyfriend. Yes, I’m insanely jealous. But I wish only the best for Bev and want very much for us to renew our friendship that has been strained the last two years.
I feel your finger quivering at me. He’s killed her! And now he’s on the run, headed back to Richmond to escape the long arm of the law. But wouldn’t the police first go to my mother’s house? A calm and collected killer would abscond to a foreign land where it’s far easier to live under an assumed name. Who would be foolish enough to hide in plain sight? To act as if nothing untoward has happened? To follow established routines and then feign surprise when the handcuffs are clapped on? Such an audacious plan sounds like it comes directly from the pen of Edgar Allan Poe . . . so is this my homage to the master?
“I think everything around here is closed,” the waitress finally replies.
A raucous group of young men stumbles out of the restaurant, cocksure and crowing, eager to raze all that stands before them. Their loud voices rule the night, virile squawks that send chills down my spine. I hate them, one and all.
“I haven’t eaten all day,” I say elegiacally. This personal admission borders on TMI and causes the waitress to scurry to her car. It’s not like I’m going to chase after her, for Pete’s sake. I stand and watch her hop into her Soul, not angry that she’s rebuffed me, that she finds me heinous, or that she’d rather be alone than speak with a well--educated stranger.
I check my phone again. From whom do I expect a call? What message do I hope to get? Something, anything, but there’s the usual nothing from nobody. This is the worst, to be hungry at midnight at an outlet mall in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, site of the most pivotal battle in the Civil War, which began because exhausted Southerners came here looking for shoes.
Shoes! Oh crap!
I dive into the backseat of the Honda and begin pawing through my luggage, gripped by the sudden fear that, yes, I’ve forgotten to pack the shoes that I’d purchased especially for the wedding. My mother won’t be happy with me. She’s become obsessed with the smallest detail of her nuptials, as if she is a blushing bride in her early twenties and not a mature woman who’s just turned sixty. But all weddings have an element of fantasy to them, not to mention stress and strain. This one will be no different. On Saturday afternoon, my mother will become Mrs. Mead George, and here’s what I know about her future husband and my stepfather: not much. He is forty--three, which makes him exactly five years older than moi. He has two children from a previous marriage, he owns a business of some sort, and he’s really friendly, according to my mother, who can’t speak about her new man without her voice lilting in exultation. She wants this wedding to be perfect, and thus we’ll all be attired in white, virginal and pure, which required me to buy a pair of white oxfords currently sitting in a Zappos box on my kitchen table.
Your hot glare falls on me. You detect my obvious displeasure at the wedding, and since I’ve promised you mayhem, you infer that I’m on my way to Richmond to kill the groom and thus exact a Hamlet--like revenge. But at the moment I’m just very upset that I’ve forgotten my shoes, and I actually stagger away from the burgundy Honda, walk over to the plate--glass window of Famous Footwear, and stare into the empty and darkened store.
Here’s a thought. Did I leave my shoes for the wedding in Ithaca because I was in a hurry to flee? Was I in some kind of panic? Sure, I’ll admit to being highly agitated. Fragile even. Last night I drove past the apartment Bev shares with her new man, named Igor, an artist no less, whose work consisted almost entirely of ceramics he’d spun on a potter’s wheel that drooped and gyrated into amorphous contortions he called “shoshin,” or “beginner’s mind,” which is a term from Zen Buddhism, whose self--denying strictures Igor pretended to follow. He had a shaved head and a severe manner of forced asceticism, and basically he looked like a gangling wraith of misplaced spirituality. But I didn’t see Bev last night, or Igor, or them together making sweet love, which in all honesty is something I’d pay to watch.
Forget I said that. I don’t want you thinking less of me too soon.
Until Bev took up with that fraud, she’d never displayed poor aesthetic taste in any medium. As for books, she read only the literary canon. Her taste in film tended to the absurdist but she also appreciated French New Wave, though often we disagreed about Truffaut’s early work. One weekend we stayed in bed for thirty straight hours gorging on Breaking Bad. And music . . . I might start to cry. Music united us, literally created us. Our first date was to see Snorting Herzog at The Dock, and those crazy bastards just killed it—-distortion, hammers beating on steel drums, amped feedback, and the onstage ingestion of a Brazilian hallucinogen. It was some pretty harsh sludge metal, but Bev never flinched. She found the show as exhilarating as I did, and during the twenty--six--minute drum solo, when my quivering hand found the small of her perspiring back, I hoped that we’d never spend a night apart for the rest of our lives.
The waitress still hasn’t driven away. The car is running and its lights are on, but she remains. How now? Is she inviting me to join her in an automotive version of hide--and--go--seek? Casually, hands stuffed in pockets, I ramble back to the Honda and get in. Not unexpectedly, the waitress backs up, slowly, giving me ample time to see her Soul in retreat. I thought she was afraid of strangers, but apparently not. The thrill of danger must animate her in ways nothing else can. A poet once told us: “Life, friends, is boring.” Here is living proof.
I follow her. She turns left onto U.S. 15 and so do I. We’re headed south, which may or may not be a coincidence. I could be resuming my drive to Richmond or in pursuit of my next victim. But how do you know there are any previous victims? No dead bodies have been produced. I’ve got no animus toward that waitress, just empathy and deep concern. It’s not like she left me for another man. Plus, I’m going to my mother’s wedding. From my car stereo blasts the boppy riffs of Le Mort Joyeux, a Grateful Dead cover band from Montreal whose lead singer sounds like a bizarre amalgam of Edith Piaf and Bob Weir. Has any serial killer in history ever listened to such an obscure band in prelude to murder? I highly doubt it, and so should you.
We drive past the entrance to the great battlefield, the gate to which has been festooned with banners to honor the festivities of yet another anniversary that will be under way in just a few hours. Lincoln said that the living cannot consecrate the dead of Gettysburg, and I tend to agree. Thousands of brave souls perished here, yet we trundle along just fine, engrossed by the odd and trivial.
Case in point: I speed up so that I’m a car length behind the waitress’s vehicle, close enough so that I can count the hairs on her pretty little head. In turn she accelerates down a lonely stretch of highway, exceeding the speed limit by a considerable margin, the naughty girl. So she likes to play rough.
My car’s engine, however, is making the kinds of desperate groans emitted from terminal patients in the last throes of decline. The tires are bald and dangerous to drive on—-but the balding doesn’t stop there. I too am shedding hair with the robust regularity of an October maple tree. An irrational part of me blames Bev’s departure on my male--pattern misery, but as a scholar of rhetoric, I realize that my hairline is a metaphor that stands for a multitude of emotional and psychological sheddings.
I can barely see the taillights of her Soul off in the distance . . .
I need new music! What band can leaven the licorice sky that conceals the forces of ruin afoot in the roadside woods? Any second a herd of deer could leap out in front of me and then I’d crash into one and be stuck here, left to confront my fate alone. Not that Bev ever enjoyed going to Richmond. She loathed the city and all it stood for, and atop her list of repugnant offenses were the marble statues that lined fabled Monument Avenue—-Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and the largest of them all, Major General Robert E. Lee, astride his trusty steed Traveller, towering some sixty feet over the genteel environs of one of Richmond’s most prestigious neighborhoods. (She didn’t mind the statue of tennis hero Arthur Ashe, but I didn’t have the heart to explain how much trauma was involved to get it placed there, next to the Confederate pantheon.)
“It makes me sick to my stomach” were her exact words upon seeing the parade of marble men for the first time. “How can a culture celebrate virulent racists and pro--slavery sympathizers?”
“I don’t think General Lee owned any slaves.”
Then came the Look of Disgust—-Bev had the singular ability to eviscerate me with one stabbing glance.
“General Lee? You mean the car on The Dukes of Hazzard? You’re defending this rubbish?”
“No! Look at it as a bizarre form of ancestor worship, like the Oracle of the Bones in ancient China.”
“So I guess Berlin should erect a few monuments to Adolf, huh, in the name of ancestor worship?”
It was at this point that I decided she had to die and then spent the next three years of my life planning the perfect crime, which I’m in the middle of executing. As if! You hunger greedily for blood, and I’m trying my best to explain, but I don’t even know myself what’s happened. Things can become a blur and even the most steadfast among us can buckle from the g-force. Let’s stick to the established facts. I’m in a car driving to Richmond. I need music that will allow my mind to clear and my spirits to lift. Nu disco, perhaps? Something fast and pounding that will speed up the passage of time and perhaps shorten the mental distance remaining in my journey. At my current pace, I won’t be arriving to my mother’s house until around four a.m.
Not the cookbook but a trio from Stockholm who, in the name of full disclosure, Bev turned me on to. I crank up the volume and settle back for a long ride through the midnight dreary. My nerves are so on edge that the approach of headlights from the opposite direction sends me spiraling into a panic, because I don’t trust myself that I won’t step on the accelerator and speed into the blinding light coming at me. An admission of guilt? Is this a “Tell--Tale Heart” moment, when you expect me to confess that I killed Bev because her hideous eyes reminded me of a vulture? Hardly. Bev’s eyes were her most attractive feature. They were verdantly green, feline and alert, beaming out an incorrigible energy unafraid to be different from the crowd. Bev’s eyes were as brave and tough as she was. She worked as a case manager with hard--core juvenile offenders, the ones who’d sexually abused infants or set fires to homes. The irredeemable, the truly forsaken. The horrors she encountered on her job never dimmed the lustrous shine of her vivid eyes, yet when those same eyes danced and darted like fireflies, avoiding me, withdrawing, withholding, condemning me to oblivion, I knew then that our love had vanished—-no, not vanished, because she said she’d love me forever and always, and so maybe the right way to phrase it is to claim our love had curdled. Cottage--cheese love, so to speak. It took her three months to find the words to end it, three weeks for her to move out, and three days for me to shower after she was gone.
I’m going to call her. The cell phone is in my trembling hand and I know she stays up late. But what would I tell her? The unvarnished truth. That I’m in serious trouble. That I’m on the verge of ruin. That I’m headed to Richmond to attend the wedding of my mother to a deadbeat who’s my age. Bev would’ve appreciated the absurdity of the insipid spectacle that will unfold this weekend, as Bev and my mother didn’t see eye to eye on most matters. This tawdry affair would’ve pushed Bev past the brink. Needless to say, my mother isn’t unhappy in the least that Bev and I are kaput, and she insists that one day I’ll find the person who’s right for me.
If I were to call Bev now, when homicide detectives searched through my cell phone records, they’d find that I’d attempted to reach her, which could mean 1) I didn’t know she was dead or 2) I was trying to cover my tracks by pretending I didn’t know she was dead. These matters aren’t easy to write about.
Just know this: It is now 12:36 a.m. I have yet to reach Maryland, morbid thoughts ransack my brain, and I’ve forgotten my shoes. I don’t call Bev.
I drive and drive, until, at 2:07 a.m. when I approach the Maryland–-Virginia border, I receive a text:
I miss u already! Hurry home! U mean everything to me
It’s not from Bev. Make of that what you will.
Reading Group Guide
1. How did the unreliable narration affect your reading of the book? How did it contribute to the book as a whole?
2. We know that Edwin can be a liar, but there are also points in the book when he is extremely honest (especially when sharing the dirty details of his personal life). How did you balance these two traits as you were reading? Did you find yourself believing him when you shouldn’t?
3. Which character did you relate to the most? Which character did you relate to the least?
4. Unreliable narrators are a common trope in fiction. How did this narrator compare to other unreliable narrators you’ve read?
5. What did the setting of Richmond, Virginia add to this story?
6. Edgar Allan Poe is referenced frequently throughout Unreliable. Why do you think Edwin is so drawn to Poe?
7. Discuss the relationships between Edwin and various women—Bev, Lola, and Leigh Rose. How did they differ from each other? How were they similar?
8. Were you surprised by the ending? As you were reading the novel, what did you predict would happen?