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Underground Reading: Witness to Myself by Seymour Shubin

Witness to MyselfThis is the latest installment in my steady quest to review each and every Hard Case Crime publication, one every week (more or less). You can follow along here.

After a run of five strong reprints, Hard Case Crime dives back in to original novels with Witness to Myself (2006). Seymour Shubin's writing career spans over six decades and includes a dozen novels, including Anyone's My Name (1953), his acclaimed debut novel (and another lost noir classic, returned thanks to the magic of ebooks - huzzah!).

Witness to Myself is the brutal story of Alan Benning, a story told - and shared - with his cousin, a nameless true crime writer. The cousin begins the story talking about their childhood. He and Alan were always friends, and, to some degree, he blames himself for not being "there" (in a vague, hand-wavey sense) for him. Through our writer's eyes, we get the story of a boy, Alan, who - is not repressed as much as extraordinarily confused. Alan and our nameless narrator are equally, secretly envious of one another. Alan envies the narrator's glamorous parents and 'happening' family life. Our narrator envies the Rockwellian stability of Alan's family. Both are, of course, wrong.

The book's defining event happens in the first few chapters. Alan, a very confused fifteen, is on a road trip with his family. It is an awkward, tense journey - although, from the outside, as our narrator sees it, it seems another example of Alan's family's domestic bliss. Alan spends as much of his time as possible avoiding his family, plus hitting adolescence has also opened up a new world of guilty (self-)pleasure as well. He has no idea what's going on, but he can't control himself.

In one small Cape Cod town, Alan (confused, repressed, etc) goes for a run in the woods. He encounters another teenager - a girl a few years younger than he is - helps her catch a balloon and then, almost without knowing it, tries to touch her. She struggles and, in the ensuing confusion - mostly him wrestling with her, keeping her from running away and "telling", she falls to the ground. Alan has no idea how badly he's hurt her - or if she's even alive. He runs.

Fifteen years later... Alan's still running.

He's not exactly "on the lam" in South America, he's a successful lawyer in Pennsylvania. But his whole life has been spent wracked by fear and guilt: he can't help but wonder what happened to the girl. Is she alive? Is she dead? Will someone come for him? He can't drink but for fear of what he'll say. He's changed his career aspirations because he no longer sees himself as a legitimate defender of the innocent. Even his romantic life has suffered, as he questions if there's something deeply wrong about him, buried within his "wants". As the book begins with "adult" Alan, he's on the verge of several major changes: he's received a stunning new job offer and he's madly in love with his girlfriend. He thinks he's finally ready to move on with his life - but he can't until he knows what really happened that one fateful summer. 

...and that's about the crux of the novel. Certainly, Mr. Shubin makes more of it than just this - Alan has to decide what he's going to do, go about doing it and then understand/deliberate about what he learns.

But, ultimately, this is about redemption and the unforgivable. Mr. Shubin does something very clever and very nasty. Alan commits what is generally accepted as the vilest possible crime: the sexual assault and (potential) murder of a child. We're reminded of this constantly through Alan, his friends, his family, the television he watches - this is a hideous, horrible thing, and we see how it can affect the victims, families and communities. At the same time, Mr. Shubin has given Alan every possible mitigating factor. He was a confused teenager, only a few years older than his victim. He's devoted his life to doing good. He's as repentant and miserable as any human being could be. He even, during the course of the book, saves a life - foiling someone's suicide attempt. He's even an unreliable narrator - we are getting his story second-hand, through his cousin, and it gradually becomes clear that between the two of them, not all the information is accurate. Is Alan being unfairly hard on himself? Or is he eliding or blocking out some harsh facts? Does it matter? Ultimately, the reader is given the opportunity to judge both Alan's crime and Alan's life. Does they balance out? Is there such thing as a truly irredeemable act? 

It is perhaps the strength of Witness to Myself that, although different characters within it have different thoughts on the topic, Mr. Shubin never steers the reader towards one definitive answer. We're left with something of an ideal (but unlikely) "reading group" book - plenty to discuss, none of it easy.

Witness makes an intriguing comparison with other books on the same theme, but in different genres - notably Anthony Burgess' Clockwork Orange (science fiction) and Mark Lawrence's Prince of Thorns (epic fantasy). In all three books we have young, male protagonists committing acts of sexual violence and, to some degree, struggling with whether or not they can be redeemed. Witness is, in some ways, the most ambitious of the three - it is based in our world, after all. The other two are more estranged from our reality and it is easier to view their protagonists' actions from a philosophical distance. There are other mitigating factors as well. Clockwork Orange comes with its own, alienating language and extremist society - it presents Alex as one small part of a dystopian ecosystem. Prince of Thorns is set in a fantasy world with its own rules. Mr. Lawrence's Jorg could become king of the world, save a country or defeat ancient, apocalyptic evil powers... the stakes of his life and what he can accomplish are on a vastly different scale. Witness is based in the here and now, it features someone just like us, with a life just like our own. It makes Alan that much more empathetic, but also his crime that much more real. There are no mitigating factors, no sense of distance, no speculative or fantastic elements that change the way we weigh things: Alan's crime is Alan's crime, and we're forced to judge his redemption as real-ly as is possible.

That's not to say Witness to Myself is a perfect book. It is certainly brutal and thought-provoking, but it is also... kind of slow. The sub-plot about the suicide attempt adds an element of the unrealistic that I had a hard time getting behind, although Mr. Shubin did his best to use it as a way add more thematic tension (Alan has instinctive impulses to do good as well, etc. etc.). If anything Witness to Myself is also... kind of slow. There is, essentially, one question - can we forgive him? Everything else is just a matter of putting down chips on the "yes" and "no" piles, one after the other.

As a result, Witness suffers slightly in comparison to other Hard Case Crime novels that explore the similar themes. The Confession, for example, plays more with the idea of the unreliable narrator, and builds up more tension by playing with that sense of trust. Many of the others - such as Home is the Sailor, Night Walker or A Touch of Death - deal with the idea of a flawed person, dealing with the consequences of a single crime, action or mistake. Whilst none of them have the directly contemporary setting of Witness, they're are still relevant and empathetic, while being, invariably, faster-paced. Witness to Myself both lives and dies on its single-minded focus. It explores one question from all the angles, and, although it does so thoroughly, it also does so at length. Certainly recommended reading (especially as part of an exercise comparing the pros and cons of different genres), but, be warned, Witness does take a bit of work.

The cover for Witness to Myself is by Larry Schwinger. It is gorgeous, and captures the protagonist's fear perfectly. It does, however, feel slightly misleading: there's a vintage atmosphere (is that a 1950s style "hood" in the alley?) which belies the contemporary setting, and this scene is, for the most part, unimportant. Alan is not on the run from gunsels with zip guns - his problems are far more intangible. That said, I'm not sure what would be right for this cover? Perhaps a boy running through the woods, looking over his shoulder? Or Alan waiting outside the house at the end of Chapter 40?I'm not sure. A very tricky one, and, regardless, Mr. Schwinger's certainly done a very striking piece of work.