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Tony O’Neill
Down and Out on Murder Mile
Harper Perennial; 258 p.

Reviewed by Tobias Carroll

Perspective is a tricky thing. The angle from which a narrator relates events can make a tremendous difference in how those events come across: are they lost in the moment, immediate reactions clinging to their descriptions? Or are they more contemplative, looking back across a span of months or years, shaking their head, wondering how exactly they found themselves in that particular situation? The unnamed narrator of Tony O’Neill’s Down and Out on Murder Mile describes in vivid detail the story of his second marriage: birthed by heroin, inhabiting the worst parts of London and Los Angeles, and traumatic for everyone involved. It’s the vantage point O’Neill takes that gives the novel its particular feel: neither entirely confessional nor encompassed by what it recounts, it follows an uneasy and unsettling pattern in recounting a series of emotionally wrenching events.

Down and Out’s protagonist — a expatriate musician residing on the West Coast as the novel opens — meets his second wife as she overdoses at a party. Six months late they marry, a relationship that provides the novel with its structure. It makes for one of the most horrific descriptions of a relationship I’ve read in a long time, in which barely repressed hatred sidles up alongside addiction, paranoia, neglect, and occasional spurts of blood via a misplaced syringe. It’s not an easy read, in part because O’Neill conveys his narrator’s growing loathing for his wife with virtually no distancing. These scenes in particular are ugly to read — although that’s pretty clearly the point.

The prose is taut and minimal, occasionally onrushing into ecstatic spurts as his narrator shoots up, finds himself consumed by rage, or surrounds himself with amassed self-loathing. Amidst the marital discord that runs throughout the novel, O’Neill describes London’s music scene and methadone clinics with equal detail, and there’s again that quality of not-distancing as his narrator occasionally provides commentary on his experiences with the recovery movement. It’s here that the book’s tone and content find themselves at odds: the narrator generally recounts his actions and thoughts, leaving the reader to make their own judgment. It’s somewhat jarring, then, when the narrator adds his after-the-fact take on specific drug treatment programs, veering briefly from a memoir-like tone to a more editorializing one.
O’Neill does finally close the gap between the two versions of his narrator that we encounter here, explaining how the irrational protagonist we’ve been following became the more grounded voice compelled to recount his own life, flaws and all. In one of the final scenes of this novel in which so much information is conveyed, O’Neill makes the unsaid nature of certain basic human exchanges resonate as much as any of the book’s more detailed passages. For a novel so focused on the abandonment of control, Down and Out on Murder Mile derives much of its power from the subtlety, even precision, of its structure.

[This review originally appeared at Lit Mob.]

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