By Bliss Bowen
The recent announcement that Disney’s 20th Television acquired rights to British author Chris Whitaker’s novel “We Begin at the End” was not surprising. Whitaker’s page-turning plot is one of the most twisted in memory, with all-too-human characters one can easily envision storming across the screen guided by “Hamilton” director Thomas Kail. Like the best of mysteries, it saves its most gut-punching turns for an ending few will foresee.
Set in coastal California and Montana, the story is haunted by one crime and driven by the hunt for answers to a second, as other mysteries braid around them.
While key characters embrace their roles in the world, often beyond reason, they also bruise themselves trying to understand who the hell they are within those stubbornly maintained constructs. No one is precisely who or what they seem, to others or themselves — least of all Walk, the amiable Cape Haven police chief masking a debilitating secret, and his best friend, Vincent King, an enigmatic local legend about to be released after 30 years behind bars.
Walk’s testimony sent King to prison, and since then he has conscientiously tried to look out for King’s teenage love, Star, and the children she’s borne since King’s arrest: swaggering self-described “outlaw” Duchess and sweet 5-year-old son Robin. In their bleak world, mercy is rationed out like water in a desert, and 13-year-old Duchess interprets “love” and “help” as their opposites while vigilantly protecting her brother from their mother’s addictions and meaningless promises; she moves about their rented house “with practiced care, a girl used to the terrors of night, to a mother who courted the worst of men.” That includes Dickie Darke, the hulking owner of a shady club where “iniquity cost ten bucks and a small chunk of virtue.”
Whitaker is examining dual forms of addiction (chemical and emotional) and families — both those that greet us when we are born and those we create by our own free choice; tortured histories with the one inevitably trouble futures with the other.
It’s a fertile topic to which many readers will relate after a year roiled by a pandemic and politics, and the characters’ conflicted humanity often grabs the heart as tension escalates. Despite his heavy-handed symbolism with names, Whitaker’s poetical prose makes for spare yet sometimes painterly vistas and striking thumbnail sketches (Dee Lane was “maybe five-one, attractive in a hard way, like the past years had gunned down the person she had once been”). In one cathartic bar scene, Duchess literally sings to survive:
“The murmurs fell silent, and the men at the table stopped lining their shots and instead moved toward the little girl that sliced heavens wide open, her soul bared and burned, the man beside her so transfixed he almost could not match her with his chords.”
Whitaker’s maddening syntax and disregard for traditional punctuation present hurdles for the reader, especially at the beginning. It’s a stylistic gamble that won’t pay off for everyone, but stay with it. The language floats on its own tidal rhythm, one that enhances the story’s quasi-mythic allure and seems intended to convey the casual shorthand that has evolved between characters. That suggestive nature layers the moral shades of gray obscuring divisions between black and white as his memorable characters debate “degrees of bad,” selfishness and selflessness, and the meaning of life when death feels like freedom.
Chris Whitaker discusses “We Begin at the End” with Pasadena-based novelist
6 p.m. Tuesday, March 23
Vroman’s Live, crowdcast.io/e/33jfivrn/register