Eric Ashworth, creative chemist, with a touch of entrepreneurial genius and a craving for exotic drugs, awakens in an L.A. jail, badly burned, thinking he's in Hell. He has amnesia. Poor guy can only remember the name "Desiree," but cannot recollect who or what the moniker is attached to. His knack for remembering past experiences is so shot, in fact, that the first cop he speaks with has to tell him his own name.
Eric's learned memory is also effected. He is able to recall some chemical formulas, the concept of profit and loss, and still possesses a minor ability to devise better ways to zone people out through the wonders of modern chemistry. However, he had been "unique" before the lab explosion, and the overdose that erased eight seconds worth of his gray matter. Ashworth is "irreplaceable" to those who hired him. He had possessed brilliance - the ability, perhaps, to cure diseases like cancer. Instead he chose to design and produce recreational drugs. Discovered and backed by big bucks from an underworld honcho, Eric and his multitude of skills went to work, producing and distributing drugs. He received, and still does, dire threats from a toady thug and his retarded, violent son as to what they will do to him if he blows the job - literally and figuratively.
There is an image that occasionally flashes across his mind. "A ball of fire, half the size of the house itself rose to the sky. Beautiful." "Between the flash and the roar, there wasn't any space at all."
Ashworth's lawyer, whom he doesn't remember meeting, bails him out of the clink and takes him to a low rent dive, Hotel Firebird, Room 621, where his neighbors are pimps, whores, buyers, sellers, and lots of bugs. I gather from the psychedelic narrative that the bugs are both the creepy crawly kind that bite, (occasionally painted in day-glo colors - or viewed through day-glo colored retinas), and also the kind people wear taped to their bodies - "tapeworms." Eric samples a mysterious new drug called "Skin," "Cradle," or "Derma" that synthesizes the sensations of touch, and allows him to time-travel inside his skull for weeks. Due to Skin, or the slow, inevitable return of his memory, or both, he begins to recall his life as a clandestine criminal chemist and his relationship with Desiree, his fortune telling lover. Perhaps he would have been better-off to have remained an amnesiac.
Craig Clevenger can sure write!! I have highlighted and book-marked phrases and paragraphs throughout the novel to go back and reread. I may not have understood as much about our protagonist as I would have liked, or empathized with him a whole lot at times, but the author's heavily stylized, wired prose is exceptional - no doubt about it! I will say that the parts of the narrative dealing with Ashworth's childhood, his parents and his fear of violent storms is brilliant and very sensitively handled. Other characters are introduced here: fellow residents of Hotel Firebird, Jack and the Beanstalk, their friend Donna, Detective Ainslinger, Manhattan White and his sicko son, even Desiree - but they all just move on by. I'm in Eric's head and everyone else is a blur.
As for the storyline, the reader is carried along on sheer manic energy, at times moving with the beat and allowing meaning to rush past - like some terrific 60's acid rock song - or trip. (My age is showing!). I am glad Mr. Clevenger kept the page number at 212. I couldn't have run with him much farther. But it was a really good trip.
I am reminded here of Will Christopher Baer's "Kiss Me Judas." Although I like the character of ex-cop Phineas Poe more than Eric Ashworth, I am sure if the two ever met, they'd get along very well. I bet their respective creators would also.
I have not read "The Contortionist's Handbook" but plan on doing so soon. Craig Clevenger is extremely talented and I hope his new novel does as well as it should, based on merit! Kudos!