For people who have experienced great and enduring trauma, the kind that begins at birth and never really lets up, seeping into every pore of a blighted existence so profoundly terrible there is no adequate way to describe it or exist well with it, reality is a cruel and awful beast.
So terrible in fact that you can understand why delusion and twisted rationalising replace a firm grasp on life as it actually is, powered by a desperate need to be loved and to belong, to feel an intrinsic part of something good, something affirming, something normal.
This might be a rubbery, indistinct thing for many, but for Kevin Richards, alcohol and drug-soaked son of junkies and lifelong denizen of the streets and protagonist of M. R. Cullen’s novel In His Words: Stupid Gets You Killed, it takes a quite particular form, one that reeks of terror and the occult and which for Kevin, currently resident of boarding facility, Cielo House, represents safety and love.
His strange, small family centres on Shadow, a violent creature from the depths of some dark and horrible place that has kept him safe since the tender and usually quite defenceless of four and who delights in leveling a playing field that clearly does not tip in Kevin’s odds.
“With a sharp gesture of his hand, the doors explode into action, racing along their tracks as if hyped up on steroids and caffeine. The speeding doors slam into the concrete walls and embed themselves deep into the building’s frame. Dust and debris rain down in a storm as the people in the Emergency Department scream and run for cover.” (P. 6)
There is a fine line, however, between harm minimisation and active enablement of harm to others, and on “the dark alleys and harbourside mansions of Sydney”, Kevin has long since walked across that line, his life a series of self-serving rationalisations that pivots on the idea that everyone else is stupid and deserves what’s coming to them.
To say much more about what Kevin and his Shadow do is to take away from the enjoyment of reading this suitably grim and unsettling novel which does a brilliant job of exploring what life is like when it has long since chewed you and spat you out and stalked off to find another hapless, lost victim.
By any stretch, Kevin has had an horrific time of it, but in Cullen’s assured hands, Kevin emerges as both monster and victim, a vulnerable man who does some terrifying things but does them from a place of brokenness, grief and love deprivation.
Balancing between great darkness and violence and an aching sense of need so profound that you feel deep empathy for Kevin even as you recoil at his comprehensively self-justified acts, In His Words: Stupid Gets You Killed is a brilliantly told journey into one blighted quest for some form of normalcy and acceptance.
The novel, whose perspective is shaped by Kevin’s twisted sense of the innate rightness of his world (even as readers can see how wrong it ultimately is), revolves around the death of ultra-wealthy megachurch founder, Rev. Preston Glenn, whose passing thrusts a glamorous widow and her son with a secret much more firmly into the public spotlight.
Resident in a guarded mansion on the shores of Sydney with views of the city’s twin iconic features, the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, the Glenns live a rarefied existence, one defined by beautiful cars, sumptuous wardrobes, and nary a glimmer of real need or want.
Watching them on TV one day in his small apartment in Cielo House, where deprivation is pretty much the prevailing order of the day, and love is solely the stuff of Hallmark movies and cosy ads, save for the friendship of decade-younger Daisy next door, Kevin becomes fixated on the idea that Preston’s widow is his Mother – she must be capitalised for such is her promise and her power in the forty-plus man’s mind – and that he must get to her and tell her so, and save her from those who, Kevin is convinced, mean her great harm.
In this warped version of reality, Kevin is both needy, love-starved child and heroic saviour on a white stallion, a man who will simultaneously rescue his Mother and be loved and protected by her.
It is abundantly clear where the line between reality and delusion sits, and Cullen does an impressively adroit job of leaping over it to the point where you begin to wonder just where the line sits and whether there isn’t some truth in what Kevin thinks and feels with a certainty so pervasively powerful that nothing will dissuade him from it.
“I eye the safe, and I admit I’m tempted to steal for the first time in my life. I was with him when he installed it. I know from experience there’s well over a hundred grand tucked away in there. Daisy, Mother and I could live well in hiding with a one hundred thousand dollar starting fund. In the end, I leave the money in the safe. Once you start giving up your morals, it’s a downward spiral.” (P. 111)
In His Words: Stupid Gets You Killed is as perfectly suitable for a Halloween read, and beyond of course, as any book you are likely to find for reasons that veer strongly into spoiler territory and cannot be divulged, on point of death naturally, but suffice to say, you get to the end strangely unnerved at how dark the world, both the one we know and those we don’t, can be.
But, and this is thanks to some expert characterisation and an insightfulness about the oft-times brokennness of the human condition that is embodied in Kevin with real compassion and understanding even as his self-delusion is expertly exposed throughout, it is also interestingly moving too.
You can’t help but feel deeply for Kevin (who possesses a fearsomely strong, if erroneously employed system of self morality) even as you recoil from the fulfillment of his vision of home, sweet home because he so desperately wants what he is manifestly now clearly not set up to have.
He comes close at times in a part of the book that goes some way to convincing readers, and even tragically Kevin himself that he can have good and lovely normal things, but much of In His Words: Stupid Gets You Killed, the writing of which is descriptively rich, full and evocative, reminds us of how chasmic and perilous sustained, soul-leaching loss is and how much damage it can do, especially in the hands of someone who can only see the shining goal of normalcy and is willing to do pretty much anything, no matter violently, rage-filled to get it.