TITLE: Blood Sugar
AUTHOR: Daniel Kraus
224 pages, Hard Case Crime, ISBN 9781789091939 (paperback)
DESCRIPTION: (from the back cover): In a ruined house at the end of Yellow Street, an angry outcast hatches a scheme to take revenge for all the wrongs he has suffered. With the help of three alienated kids, he plans to hide razor blades, poison, and broken glass in Halloween candy, maiming or killing dozens of innocent children. But as the clock ticks closer to sundown, will one of his helpers – an innocent himself, in his own streetwise way – carry out or defeat the plan?
MY RATING: four out of five stars
MY THOUGHTS: While the Paul Mann cover art of a beautiful, scantily-clad witch on a broomstick surrounded by candy (which reminded me of a Dave Stevens poster I had back in the 80s) seems almost light-hearted at first glance (until you notice the razor-blades, that is), be assured that Daniel Kraus’ BLOOD SUGAR is not light-hearted in the least. This is a dark, dark book, ranking with Joyce Carol Oates’ The Triumph of the Spider-Monkey and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange as books that disturbed me so much I almost couldn’t finish them. Almost couldn’t … but did, because in each of these books there’s a narrative voice that pulls you in despite how much you might want to walk away.
Like the Oates and Burgess books, BLOOD SUGAR is a deep descent into the mind of a killer. But where the Oates and Burgess books are largely a single monologue by the main character, Kraus gives us a look into the minds and motivations of three of the four main characters: Jody, the streetwise helper; Dag, the suburban girl slumming for a thrill; and Robbie, the gang-leader.
Most of the story is told from Jody’s point-of-view, a kid trying to make himself out to be cooler, more street-smart, than he really is. There are shades of Holden Caulfield in Jody’s inflated self-defense mechanism as much as there are shades of Burgess’s Alex. Like both of those characters, Jody’s insecurities are illuminated by his choice of targets for ridicule and actual physical violence. This is a kid who has been mistreated by the system and the adults in his life, who has had to fend for himself from an early age. He’s learned when to lash out and when to be subservient, as illustrated by the way he replaces curses with language deemed “more appropriate” by gang-leader Robbie. Jody uses phrases like “mightyducker” and “sharkweek” throughout most of the book, which can take a little getting used to (much like Alex’s slang in A Clockwork Orange) but when he finally lets the actual curse words fly, it’s a stunning moment of catharsis for him, as well as insight into how much he’s been holding back for the reader.
Jody’s narration is interrupted occasionally by Robbie and Dag. The differences in presentation and character voice provide the reader a respite from Jody’s stream-of-consciousness tumble of linguistic glitches and substitute curse words, and provide insight into his “friends” that Jody would never be aware of on his own. What Jody knows of their backstories allows him to ridicule one and somewhat idolize the other; what we see in the few chapters that show us letters written by Robbie and Dag give us a good view of why Jody is wrong on both counts.
Robbie’s chapters are letters he’s written to various authority figures who have let him down in the aftermath of a violent crime he perpetrated years before the book’s main events. The details of that event, and what led up to it, are teased out through these letters, providing clarity as to what has brought Robbie to his current state (on the verge of homelessness, squatting in his parents’ abandoned house, sharing drugs with young teenagers). The style of these chapters is still very stream-of-consciousness, but Robbie’s mind works in a completely different way from Jody’s, and these letters help us understand why.
Dag’s chapters are also letters, to a sister ensconced in a mental health facility post-suicide attempt. They start out very organized and formal; Dag is the least “if I think it, I’ll write it” of the three narrators, even towards the end of the book. She is also perhaps the coldest and most calculating of the three. But she has her own set of psychoses that propel her, just as much as Jody’s and Robbie’s propel them.
The only main character we don’t hear from directly is Jody’s foster sister Midge, who plays a pivotal role at several moments. She’s the youngest of the characters and, as presented, the most divorced from reality because of her experiences. Perhaps it’s good that we never see anything from her point-of-view; it would either be too disturbing or too heart-breaking.
There are enough twists and turns in the narrative that you’re never really sure how the story is going to play out – will Jody stop the plan or follow through on it; will some innocent secondary characters become victims of the violence or will they somehow skate past it; will the characters’ dark pasts only provide background to their present or will things somehow come full circle? Kraus keeps the tension high by changing narrators at pivotal moments, reverting to back-story to forestall the denouement just a little bit longer. And the shifting narrators also call into question exactly who is running this particular show. Each one thinks they are in control of themselves and manipulating the others. I really had no idea how it was all going to play out.
Daniel Kraus’s BLOOD SUGAR is a disturbing, dark read. Perfect for a series of late October nights for fans of first-person psychological horror. But definitely not for the squeamish.