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Savage Lane


Savage Lane

In the 1990s, the American economy was booming in the dot-com explosion, and the country was at peace. The idea of being involved in endless wars in the Middle East seemed insane and impossible. Then a young author named Jason Starr exploded on the scene in the last years of that decade and almost singlehandedly saved the American literary tradition called noir.

In an optimistic time, Starr’s books were thrillers with a dark edge. They featured ordinary people trapped by their jobs, lives and marriages; showed the dark side of the American dream and life in the big city; and foretold perhaps the coming disaster. Besides being a great writer and original voice, Starr was working in the tradition of such classic noir writers as James M. Cain and Cornell Woolrich.

In early September, Polis Books reissued seven of Starr’s early novels in attractive new editions and as eBooks, all of which are worth your time. Now they have released SAVAGE LANE, an original Starr novel described as a dark, domestic thriller. It is one of the best books of 2015, and Starr is one of the greatest writers now working in the United States.

Savage Lane is a fictional street located in the real Westchester County town of South Salem. Westchester is a place I know well, having covered it for two decades as a reporter for The New York Times. It was a bedroom community of New York City when my family moved there in the 1950s but grew rapidly, as all suburbs did after World War II. It is now one of the richest suburbs in America.

"Reminiscent of Rick Moody’s THE ICE STORM and Tom Perrotta’s LITTLE CHILDREN, SAVAGE LANE is a novel of our lives and times that is a must-read on multiple levels."

Mark, 44, and his wife of 17 years, Deb, live on Savage Lane with their two kids: an eight-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl. A few doors down is Karen, who is recently divorced and putting her life back together while caring for her two kids. Mark describes their world as such: “They have a good, comfortable life --- a big house, country club membership, two healthy kids, some money put away, no debt. What more could you want? Yeah, maybe the sex wasn’t as good as it used to be, but it wasn’t bad. At least they still did it a lot --- at least a few times a month anyway, which was more than a lot of couples Mark knew. But most importantly, they were good parents. Riley and Justin were great, happy kids…”

Starr takes us up close and into the world of the top 10 percent of Americans, materially satiated and successful in their $875,000 castles. Yet peel away a layer, and beneath the surface emerges darkness. Steering wheels being gripped “as if…trying to strangle it” as couples drive home from parties and arguments explode while Rush plays in the background. Ugly public scenes in country clubs, captured forever by the ever-present cell phones.

Mark is in a state of lust that he mistakes for love for Karen. A brief “moment” between them at a party throws Deb right off the rails. She is hitting the vodka bottle at 9am in order to get --- drive --- the kids to school. And poor Justin is wetting the bed as his nerves are so shot.

“Every town has its secrets” is the subtitle of the book. This one certainly does. Starr is great at satire; you cannot help but laugh as these characters dig, literally and metaphorically, their graves. In the richness of how he draws characters, Starr is reminiscent of another great writer of mysteries and a brilliant observer of absurd modern life: Elmore Leonard.

Starr is a noir writer, and this is noir, or neo noir, at its best. You can read is as a book about the malaise of modern suburban life where people have excess time and money. Then he hits you in the face with absolute horror, and you are thrust into a murder mystery. The people of Savage Lane --- even the defenders of society, supposedly the sane ones, like teachers and cops --- are delusional. And sometimes in our delusions and self-absorption, we set loose the monsters who will try to kill us.

At one point, probably the most despicable character in the book utters the line “Was everybody around here losing their minds?” Short answer: Yes. But they are tremendously fun to watch, and like the true professional writer he is, Starr effectively keeps building the suspense and to a satisfying climax. He writes, “Mark was thinking about Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. Like Stewart, Mark just wanted one more chance to do it over, do it right… If he could just rewind a few years, no five years, okay five years, to when things were still good he wouldn’t let things unravel, he wouldn’t.”

Sure. When life is hallow, and material possessions and sex provide no refuge, what could be better than to retreat into the fictional flickering images of classic Hollywood. There are no Jimmy Stewarts living on Savage Lane. Or anywhere else for that matter.

Jason Starr has written a noir tale about the horror and darkness beneath our delusions and dreams, the truth underlining our successful façade that one day will run us down and destroy us. If his early books previewed what was coming, this new effort should leave us much afraid for the collective future. Reminiscent of Rick Moody’s THE ICE STORM and Tom Perrotta’s LITTLE CHILDREN, SAVAGE LANE is a novel of our lives and times that is a must-read on multiple levels.

Reviewed by Tom Callahan on October 16, 2015

Savage Lane
by Jason Starr

  • Publication Date: October 13, 2015
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Polis Books
  • ISBN-10: 1940610648
  • ISBN-13: 9781940610641