The Destroyers by Christopher Bollen


Her face and vagina are competing for my attention, so I glance down at the billiard rack of my penis and testicles.


Her breasts were wobbly teapots with long, impractical stems.

Her body was one long tongue, a lean, speaking muscle.

Raina tugged off her bikini top, her breasts two fried eggs runny with grease.

I can taste the wild oregano pouring from the fields; it tastes like Saturdays in childhood or lost favorite love songs.

The salt on my skin feels as leaden as an X-ray vest in a dental office.

Adrian’s blue eyes glisten like windshield cleaner.

A white wake trails behind us like feet kicking under a sheet.

The skin around her eyes is pinched and red, and the eyes themselves have a blue-gray fixity, like iron fire doors at the end of school hallways.

When the captain removes a trapdoor to punch the engine switch and pour oil over the gears like salad dressing, a black heifer of smoke heaves around the guardrails.

Similes are like shellfish: sometimes it takes just one bad one to ruin everything around it.

That, unfortunately, is the case with Christopher Bollen’s The Destroyers (Harper), which is actually a pretty good novel written by an author of immense talent. Unfortunately, like too much cumin in chili, these awful bits of figurative language overpower the positive ingredients.

Hopefully, we all know the drill with similes: good ones make a visual more vivid and pull you deeper into a character or story; bad ones yank you by your cerebral collar right out of the story and stop your immersive experience in its tracks.

That The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other review outlets, have overlooked these literary spike strips and given unqualified praise to a novel that one prominent author hailed as “a smart, sophisticated literary thriller,” is as boggling to me as white supremacy in the White House. In the Post, reviewer Art Taylor posited one way to “distinguish literary fiction from genre fiction: In genre writing, the action is in the plot; in literary, the action is in the prose.”

Fair enough. But, I think, intellectually dishonest, if a reviewer overlooks dozens of instances in which the prose’s action jumps the novel’s curb, blasts through the novel’s guardrail and plunges down the novel’s embankment. (I copied nearly fifty examples of cringe-inducing figurative language in The Destroyers.)

Though if there’s an argument that these feverish figuratives are un-awful, I’m willing to hear it.

Anyway, it’s all too bad, because there’s a story here, and it’s a pretty good one: Ian Bledsoe, pushing thirty, is the disgraced, disinherited son of a Manhattan baby-food magnate who recently died. Broke—except for money he stole from the family right after Pops passed—and unemployable, Ian reaches out to Charlie, a childhood chum from an even richer family who now lives the idyll life of the idle rich on the Greek isle of Patmos.

Ian arrives to find that all is not well in paradise, that Charlie is as maddening as he is mesmerizing, and that too many poor rich people like Ian have made themselves too dependent on him. So when Charlie disappears, his coterie staggers around in confusion, and Ian’s half-assed investigation shows that it’s possible that Charlie’s disappearance may be a permanent one. And that prospect has Ian and the others pointing accusatory fingers at one another, with fatal consequences.

Bollen does many good things here. His characters are intriguingly complex. His heavy-lidded prose, when not firehosing horrible similes, is a good match for the languid but silently troubled lives these lost people lead. You feel the sun on the beaches, the oppressive heat of the streets, and the overheated emotions of young people of tenuous privilege terrified at the prospect of growing up and taking care of themselves. His plot unwinds with deceptively lazy speed, pulling the characters and the complex agendas into an undertow that rivals anything the Aegean Sea might have to offer.

And there are some pithy bits of wisdom, like “Every so often, after sex, you realize that you might not be any good at it and all it amounted to was a childish tantrum on top of another body.”

Bollen’s talent, like the inability of 99.9 percent of humanity to credibly fold a fitted sheet, is beyond question.

But … those similes.

Like a Republican health-care plan before Senate members, I can’t get past them.

Can you?

Eagle Harbor Books: Buy
Amazon: AU CA UK US

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