By Matt Duggan
Cherry Electra, the first adult novel by Toronto author Matt Duggan, introduces itself as such with a cup of urine being thrown in the narrator’s face. We are also soon made aware of the two novelistic conventions that will inform everything that follows. The first of these is that of the unreliable narrator. The story is told in the form of a series of jailhouse letters written by “e.” to his girlfriend “T.”, attempting to explain what happened during a wild weekend at a cottage owned by the father of e.’s friend Teddy, a weekend that resulted in e. being charged with first-degree murder. In addition to these inherently suspicious circumstances we also quickly learn that e. has a sometimes casual attitude toward the truth, forcing the reader to carefully sift everything he says.
The other convention is that of the big tease. Rest assured, you won’t be finding out what really happened to Teddy’s father, or at least e.’s version of what really happened, until the final pages. The rest is build-up, a seductive undressing that intercuts the main narrative with a series of flashbacks fleshing out the history of e.’s ambiguous (to say the least) relationships with Teddy and T.
The result is a clever and satisfying bit of cottage-country gothic that involves, among other things, a “cherry” Buick Electra that looks “like the wheeled burial sarcophagus for a disco era Aztec king” and a sinister pistol once owned by Hitler, all engagingly rendered in e.’s ingratiatingly articulate voice. It helps that both Teddy and e. are showmen: e. an overeducated, underemployed slacker (a wannabe writer, naturally), and Teddy an artist manqué who sees crime as a sort of performance piece. The action, fuelled exclusively by booze and hard drugs, has a restless, manic energy to it, and the plot is similarly wired. For the most part the two conventions are very well handled, though e.’s delaying tactics start to become obvious near the end (to the point where he has to explicitly forswear them), as does his subterfuge of innocence. But overall Duggan has served up an entertaining psychological thriller that will keep readers, at the cottage or elsewhere, rushing to keep up.
Review first published in Quill & Quire, April 2010.