- Title: Born Slippy: A Novel
- Author: Tom Lutz
- Genre: noir, thriller
- Publish date: January 14, 2020
- Publisher: Repeater/Penguin Random House
- Page count: 296
- Barnes & Noble
A provocative, globe-trotting, time-shifting novel about the seductions of — and resistance to — toxic masculinity.
“Frank knew as well as anyone how stories start and how they end. This fiery mess, or something like it, was bound to happen. He had been expecting it for years.”
Frank Baltimore is a bit of a loser, struggling by as a carpenter and handyman in rural New England when he gets his big break, building a mansion in the executive suburbs of Hartford. One of his workers is a charismatic eighteen-year-old kid from Liverpool, Dmitry, in the US in the summer before university. Dmitry is a charming sociopath, who develops a fascination with his autodidactic philosopher boss, perhaps thinking that, if he could figure out what made Frank tick, he could be less of a pig. Dmitry heads to Asia and makes a neo-imperialist fortune, with a trail of corpses in his wake. When Dmitry’s office building in Taipei explodes in an enormous fireball, Frank heads to Asia, falls in love with Dmitry’s wife, and things go from bad to worse.
“I thought this house was for you.” Frank reflexively motioned with his chin toward the door Margie had walked through. Paul apprehensively glanced that way.
“Once I explain the profit, and show her drawings for a bigger place, she’ll be on board.”
“The state won’t mind?”
“My lawyer says there’s nothing in the loan docs about not selling it. You have to move in, which I can do for a week, but that’s it. It will sell better if it’s furnished, anyway? This one will be in my name, and by then we’ll establish your residency and do the next one with state money under your name. When we sell that one, we’d have enough to each finance our own, or maybe do two at the same time?”
Frank saw it immediately. Over a hundred grand profit per house. Four houses, a half million. Eight houses, a million bucks. This was his shot. He would finally have a stake. He had washed up on the shore alive, godammit, pockets full of doubloons. He wasn’t stupid: he doubted it all. But emotionally he had already signed the papers.
“Fifty-fifty?” he asked.
“Fifty-fifty. You do the extra labor? I’m the contractor, take care of the legal, etc.”
“OK. And how do I live between now and the big payday?”
“Obviously winter will slow us down, but we can get this first one done in four months, get the next one framed before winter, finish the interior even if it’s cold? Then launch the next two next spring. Sixteen or eighteen months from now we each have a $250,000 house and that much cash? That’s a lot of money.”
No, duh, five times anything he had ever made.
“Still,” Frank said. “You have a job, right?” Paul put on a coat and tie every day and worked — fairly high up — in an insurance company, one that insured nuclear power plants. Must have made this risk here seem miniscule. “I have to get paid something. I have to live on something. I’ve got child support.” Not court-ordered, but still.
“I was thinking that maybe, if you took, say, $6 an hour like the other laborers, it would look kosher for the state? It’s not a very good hourly rate, I know? But you could maybe get by on $300 a week?”
Frank looked at Catskills and cursed him silently, since no doubt that’s where Paul got the information about his income. But it didn’t matter. He could, in fact, get by on that, if it was steady, and the payoff was worth it. Defrauding the state of Connecticut seemed a little dicey, but that was mostly Paul’s lookout; besides, a lawyer was on the job and on paper maybe it did look OK. Ethically, he decided, he was in the clear. If the state was trying to extend the ownership society, well, he was, in fact, a poor person, and he would end up owning his own house. Maybe not in Connecticut, and maybe not this house, but still, he would be fulfilling the spirit, if not the letter of the law.
“Make it $350, and charge it as a project expense. The fifty-fifty happens after that?”
“OK?” Paul said.
“Where do I sign?”
“Nothing to sign. We can start right away?”
In less than two years Frank would have hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was in. He had no protection if this Paul wasn’t as innocent as he seemed, but he looked at that soft, ineffectual-looking body, clearly on tenterhooks, and tried to imagine it screwing him over. Didn’t seem possible. And what the hell, at worst Frank would be right where he was. With the down time between jobs he wasn’t averaging $350 a week lately, and he knew the world well enough to know that contract or no contract, the guy with the lawyer had all the power. Paul was sweating, so Frank stayed silent.
“There’s a motel in the town? I can rent a double room there by the month for $300. We can make that a business expense, too? I’ll need a place sometimes, I assume, but you can have it alone the rest of the time.”
Frank was sick of being a loser. And he had been making all the right moves to get ready for this. He had stopped smoking pot all the time. He drank way less. He was keeping better records. He had gotten more serious about his reading to make up for never going to college — he didn’t count the semester he signed up for two night courses and, being high all the time, kind of forgot about them — literally forgot he was going to college. But now he was a new man. He was prepared for this chance.
And Tracy. One unintended consequence of getting sober was that his relationship with Tracy changed. He had known all along that he came up short with her, could see it, see her exasperation with him. But he’d always assumed it was because he was high, or drunk, so much of the time — she loved him, he was almost her shining-armored knight, he was just still young and stupid, a.k.a. stoned, and she, older and wiser, was waiting for him to straighten up and be his true, brilliant, reliable, gallant self.
But once he was straight, it was harder for either of them to pretend that he was the guy she was looking for. At nineteen, we all look like we can become anything, but by the time we’re twenty-five, our limitless prospects have already massively shut down, and we start to look like what we will become. She saw it and didn’t like it. They all but stopped having sex, and without that, there was no escaping her disinterest. She had had a project — fix him, make him less of a loser — but now, the drugs and booze put aside, the man replaced the boy, and she wasn’t impressed. She may have even preferred the boy.
Less of a loser, but feeling like more of one, he begged for her love. In the final throes he wept in shame and anger, and this mooncow act made her even more fed up. When he moved out of the house it surprised no one, all his friends having seen it coming and wondering why it was taking so long.
The kids were devastated, Lulu six and Kennedy eight, girls already left behind by their real dad. Although Kennedy had been stoic when he told her, he knew she would fall apart as soon as she was alone in her room, and she did. Lulu was talking to herself in the full-length mirror on the bedroom door, as if reminding herself she existed, or maybe the opposite, lost in whatever fantasy she could grab. The only thing that would make it OK, he decided, the only thing that would allow him to feel like less of a shit, was to make something of himself. This boondoggle with Paul was exactly what he’d been waiting for, the thing that would set him up, make him solid. They could do six or eight more houses, then split the resulting millions and go their own merry ways. He imagined Tracy’s eyes full of surprised pride, and, once again, desire.
“I’m in,” he said.
Tom Lutz is a writer of books, articles, and screenplays, the founder of the Los Angeles Review of Books, and is now Distinguished Professor at UC Riverside. His books include American Book Award winner Doing Nothing, New York Times notable books Crying and American Nervousness, 1903, the travel books And the Monkey Learned Nothing and Drinking Mare’s Milk on the Roof of the World, and coming on January 14, 2020, Born Slippy: A Novel.
He has written for television and film, and appeared in scores of national and international newspapers, magazines, academic journals, and edited collections. He is working with a Los Angeles-based production company on a television show set in the 1920s, is finishing a third collection of travel pieces, a book on the 1920s (The Modern Surface), and is in the early stages of a book on global conflict along the aridity line.
Twitter: @TomLutz22 https://twitter.com/tomlutz22
Instagram: @tmlutz22 https://instagram.com/tmlutz22
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