Aaron Philip Clark’s “The Science of Paul” was originally published several years ago by New Pulp Press and has now found a home with Shotgun Honey. For those of you who have read Clark’s book in 2010 or 2011, it should not surprise you that I found “The Science of Paul” to be, not only a great read but a great book.
The novel opens in the North Carolina countryside with Paul Little burying his grandfather on their family’s land. Even in these first few pages, we catch glimpses of Paul’s frayed psyche. As he finishes burying his grandfather, his girlfriend sits on the trunk of her Cadillac and Paul looks at her.
Watching her is like watching some endangered species of butterfly or hummingbird, a kind of graceful exquisiteness. It’s always special, because I know our time together is coming to a close. Tammy is what men grow weak and rubbery in the knees for—she’s proof of God’s existence and even if she lives to be ninety, I doubt here beauty will ever fade. But every time I look at her, I can’t help but ask myself, Why the hell is she with me?
And Paul’s misconstrued view of his relationship isn’t the only thing that makes his life a mess. He was never honest with his grandfather about his prison time and he has a sporadic drinking problem. This constant inner struggle to come to terms with his life is the conflict that drives the story along.
Paul and Tammy return to Philadelphia and it is with the North Carolina air still in his system and the confines of the city closing in on him that Paul’s inability to accept the love of a woman comes to a climax. After breaking things off with Tammy, Paul’s goal is to leave Philadelphia as soon as possible.
One aspect that separates good books from great books is how setting can become character-like within a novel. Clark’s Philadelphia is such a place and such a character.
Philadelphia is an urbanized hub of neighborhoods masquerading as a metropolis. It’s an obscene city and it’s a war with itself. It feeds on itself like a rat gnawing on the skin and gristle of its tail. Everything in this city is in opposition to what it is to live, and if I’m to have any chance at living, I’ve got to flee before I become a slave to it. Before I become like everyone else, hollowed out and empty, existing, but far from living.
Clark doesn’t get bogged down in Paul’s navel-gazing, he moves the story move along using crime fiction elements: good cops, bad cops, dangerous criminals, deception, and murder. Yet, the focus remains on Paul’s self-inflicted torment and his belief that escaping Philadelphia for the hills of North Carolina will bring him peace. It’s a delicate balance that Clark gets right. If, like me, you haven’t read Aaron Philip Clark’s “The Science of Paul” before, do so, and no doubt it will be one of the best crime fiction books you’ve read this year. If you read it some ten years ago, now’s a good time to go back and re-read this book, it is a great as you remember.