Antoine Wilson, The Interloper (Handsel Books, 2007)
You board a train, only to learn after it’s left the station that the tracks that lie ahead haven’t been bolted down. You speed along, wondering when the train will derail and how bad the wreck will be.
You’re reading Antoine Wilson’s The Interloper.
This standout, tautly-written debut novel opens with a humble introduction by the narrator, Owen Patterson, an unremarkable writer of software manuals who is a self-described “solid B.” Owen finds his married life disintegrating as his wife, Patty, copes with the senseless murder of her brother. He attempts to contact the incarcerated murderer—a one Joseph Raven—by purporting to be a man seeking a pen pal in prison. When he receives no reply, Owen feels even more helpless until he realizes the flaw in his design. Why would Raven want to correspond with a man? Surrounded by only men, Raven would likely have only one thing on his mind: Women.
And so we meet Lily Hazelton, a pseudonym Owen assumes in a plot to wedge Raven’s heart firmly beneath the keys of his Olivetti typewriter and crush it, inducing the kind of psychological damage he believes will be just recompense for murder. Intent on getting inside the mind of a woman, Owen puts on his wife’s thong underwear as he sits down to write a letter to Raven. And so begins our darkly humorous journey into the demise of Owen Patterson, a man who succumbs to the forces of the fictional world he creates.
In this largely epistolary novel, we pore through the correspondence between Lily and Raven suspecting Owen may not be one step ahead of the game as he attempts to wrap Raven’s heart around his finger with mawkishly romantic prose. But because his questionable reliability is established early in the novel, Owen’s subsequent string of bad decisions suggests the unraveling of a protagonist with a screw loose rather than a tale of best intentions gone awry. Wilson keeps the reader guessing, wondering what is real, unreal and possibly surreal, in this game of cat and mouse. Even though Owen’s goal to “balance the scales of justice” is commendable, he stoops to dark places, likening himself to a doomed superhero who, when finding the enemy’s weapons in hand, chooses to use them.
Wilson explores the darker side of the human psyche while still finding humor, giving insight into the full spectrum of emotions experienced when coping with death. Further, Owen’s own past comes back to haunt him, distorting a world he already views as an “unbalanced equation” in which a twenty year prison sentence is deemed sufficient punishment for murder. Memories of Owens’s deceased cousin Eileen, his first love, bring back memories that, when combined with his disgust for Raven, breed hatred, sending the narrative into a downward spiral. At times horrifying and at times laugh out loud funny, The Interloper makes for compulsive reading.
Though set in a dark, foreboding Los Angeles, the novel is not specific to the landscape, barely touching on the facets of Los Angeles that set it apart from other locales. The universal appeal of this novel stems from its compelling plot coupled with Wilson’s keen observations of the world we live in.
Owen’s belief in his mission and the means to attain it illuminate a human tendency to create fictions in order to overcome the reality of often morally reprehensible times. The reader can empathize with Owen’s “noblest mistake to see humanity in everyone,” even if the object of his miscalculation is a cold-blooded killer incapable of basic human sympathies. The Interloper scrutinizes the unsatisfying nature of justice in our legal system as Owen is driven to take matters into his own hands, unwieldy hands though they may be.
As a novelist, Wilson tightly orchestrates the entire disaster, leaving us wondering how badly things will end up for Owen. Further, the title leaves the reader asking who the interloper is in this tangle of affairs. Although the easy answer may be Owen, I can’t help but point to Wilson who has so deftly crafted this creepy tale, demanding the reader keep on guard through to the last and final page.
The rush to the book’s climax verges on the fantastical with twists of fate that, at times, seem convenient. Nonetheless, given Owen’s questionable sanity, the conclusion is foreshadowed in the opening paragraphs. Justice, in some sense, is served, but mostly for Wilson himself, in succeeding to write a gripping first novel that defies expectations. All aboard? Wilson’s train is leaving the station . . .
Lisa Kunik is a writer based in New York City.