Apathy and Other Small Victories

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9780312351748: Apathy and Other Small Victories

The only thing Shane cares about is leaving. Usually on a Greyhound bus, right before his life falls apart again. Just like he planned. But this time it's complicated: there's a sadistic corporate climber who thinks she's his girlfriend, a rent-subsidized affair with his landlord's wife, and the bizarrely appealing deaf assistant to Shane's cosmically unstable dentist.

When one of the women is murdered, and Shane is the only suspect who doesn't care enough to act like he didn't do it, the question becomes just how he'll clear the good name he never had and doesn't particularly want: his own.

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About the Author:

Paul Neilan recently left his mind-numbing job at an insurance company in Portland, Oregon, where he spent most of his time hiding in the bathroom and weeping. Born of this and many, many other humiliations, Apathy and Other Small Victories is his first novel.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One
I was stealing saltshakers again. Ten, sometimes twelve a night, shoving them in my pockets, hiding them up my sleeves, smuggling them out of bars and diners and anywhere else I could find them. In the morning, wherever I woke up, I was always covered in salt. I was cured meat. I had become beef jerky. Even as a small, small child, I knew it would one day come to this.
That Sunday I could feel my head pounding even before I opened my eyes. I might have kept them shut all day if there hadn't been two men standing over my bed.
"All right partyboy, time to get up," one of them said in a gruff, weary voice.
I blinked a few times. I was very confused. I didn't know who either of them were, or what the fuck they were doing in my apartment. They both had their shirts tucked in and the older one, the one with the gruff voice, had a low hairline that started just above his eyebrows and a drooping mustache that hung along his sagging jowls. He looked like a walrus. The younger one had slicked-back hair and squared shoulders and perfect posture. He was smirking like he couldn't wait to show me how cocky he was. He looked like every cop that had ever given me a ticket.
"Smells like criminal intent in here," he said, glaring at me.
"What?" I said.
"I was gonna ask you the same thing," he said, challenging me in a way that I did not understand.
The older guy looked annoyed at both of us.
"I'm Detective Brooks," he said, "and this is Detective Sikes. We're here to ask you a few questions."
"Don't you need a warrant or something? How did you get in here?" I couldn't think of anything I'd done that would get me arrested. If stealing a few saltshakers was wrong I didn't want to be right.
"Your door was wide open so we came in, just to make sure you were okay. And we don't need a warrant to ask you a couple of questions. We just want to talk."
"Oh." I had my bedsheet pulled up to my chin and I was clenching it with both fists for some reason. It must have been the goddamn vampires again.
"Why don't you sit up like a big boy and talk to us," Sikes said.
"No thanks, I'm very comfortable."
"Where are your manners," he said, smirking. "Rise and shine fancy pants!" and he grabbed the bottom of my sheet and yanked it away from me like my father used to do with my blanky when I was very small, but this time I didn't cry. And I knew that I was finally a man.
I was still wearing my shoes and the same clothes I'd been fired in on Friday, except now everything was covered in salt. There was a pile of it on my bed, and I was buried underneath it like the sleeping dad on the beach who wakes up to find that his mischievous asshole children have played a joke on him with their buckets of sand and their cruelty. But these men were not my children, and there were no saltshakers anywhere. Where had it all come from? How had this happened? I had no idea. I have never been able to explain myself.
"Bling bling. Looks like somebody had themselves a little fiesta," Sikes said. "What've we got here, coke? H? Mexican chimmy hat?" He stuck his pinky into his mouth and then dipped it in the salt. "You're going away for a long time señor," he said as he jammed his salt-speckled finger up his nostril.
"Sergeant that doesn't look like--" Brooks started to say, but Sikes was already snorting. His eyes watered and he started coughing and sneezing in short fast fits like a dog. He blew his nose into his hands and rushed to the bathroom, slamming the door behind him. The faucet was on for a long time and he was coughing and spitting and crying.
Brooks looked at me strange.
"You sleep in salt?" he said.
"Good for your back?"
"It's all right."
"You famous or something?"
"Not really," I said.
He considered the possibilities, then decided I was guilty of some undetermined perversion and shook his head. We both listened as Detective Sikes heaved into my sink. I wished the guy in the apartment above me would start fucking his guinea pig again, just to give us something else to listen to, but he did not. Those kinds of wishes almost never come true.
When the cocky prick finally came out of the bathroom his face was raw and smeared, his eyes puffy from all the crying. He looked like a burn victim, one who'd been through numerous successful surgeries but still wasn't fully healed. It's tough to ever really recover after your face has been on fire. I stared at him pretty fucking bemused but he wouldn't look at me.
"Now that you've cracked the case," I said, smiling at Sikes and his chafed red nose, "I really would like to get back to sleep. I bid you both good morning."
"It's two in the afternoon," Brooks said.
"No shit."
"Like I said, we have a few questions for you."
"All right," I said, and sighed.
I was still foggy and my head was throbbing, but I could play vice squad with these two for a few minutes. It would make them feel like they were being useful, and it would be an interesting start to my day. I just hoped I hadn't done anything stupid the night before. I didn't remember anything illegal. I didn't remember anything really.
"Where were you last night, around 10 p.m.?"
"Probably at a bar."
"What bar?"
"The one down the street."
"What's the name of it?"
"What's this about?"
"How well do you know Marlene Burton?"
"The assistant at Dr. Weinhardt's office. Your dentist."
"Oh, deaf Marlene."
"She had a last name." Sikes broke his shame-induced silence. "She wasn't defined by her disability. She was a person too you know."
I know, fuckhead, I signed in response, working my hands slow for emphasis. I waited for him to react. I wanted to slap away the cockiness that was already creeping back into his blotchy, running face. When it was clear that he had no idea I'd called him a fuckhead in sign language I said, "What about her?"
"Marlene Burton was found dead last night."
My dentist's name was Dr. Weinhardt but I called him Doug. Doug had episodes. He'd flip out and have to lie down and monitor his pulse and breathe slow and in rhythm like a pregnant woman or else he'd faint, which he usually did anyway. He thought iced tea helped, so he kept a pitcher of it in his back office on a table beside his fainting couch, and he carried a monogrammed flask with him wherever he went. The monogram was D.W.I. Douglas Weinhardt the First.
"But D.W.I. are the initials for Driving While Intoxicated! And it's a flask but there's no alcohol, it's only iced tea. Get it? And I don't even drive! I take the bus every day! That's funny, right?"
"Jesus Doug."
He thought his episodes were being caused by a series of brutal attacks he'd suffered recently. This is how he explained it to me:
"About three months ago I was getting off a bus downtown when all of a sudden--Psshew!" He smacked both his hands against his ears. "The big folding accordion door closed right on my head! And then there must have been a malfunction or something because it just went Wham! Wham! Wham!" He pressed the air around both sides of his head three times fast with his palms, spreading his fingers and holding his elbows high, like some New Wave dance that was so embarrassing no one even joked about it anymore. "It kept slamming into my head until I fell out into the street. When I woke up there was a crowd of people standing around me and a man was snapping his fingers in my face. The bus driver said he'd never seen anything like it. I couldn't stand up without falling down again. I had to ride home in the back of an ambulance. And then a few weeks later, on a different bus with a different driver, it happened again! It's happened six more times since. I don't even call the ambulance anymore. I just crawl around until my equilibrium comes back."
"Christ Doug. Maybe you should see a doctor."
"I am a doctor," he said.
It would have sounded smug if he hadn't just finished telling a story about getting his head jackhammered by a bus door. It's real hard to come off as even slightly superior when you're living a Tom and Jerry episode.
Doug had a dental assistant named Marlene. My first appointment I was reclined in the chair and Doug was gouging my teeth and gums with something he called the sharpo. "Just cleaning the plaque out of the gutters," he said as blood drained into the back of my throat.
There was a bright light hovering above me like the ones aliens and angels use to trick people into not running away and I was breathing hard through my nose and panicking because I was choking to death on my own blood. Then I heard someone else come into the room, their shoes softly padding the floor. The light steps sounded like a woman's.
"Oh there she is. Just in time. Can you hand me the pro-ber?" Doug said.
He was speaking very slowly and louder than a normal person should. A woman's hand passed between me and the light. I saw red nails, and I was very impressed with myself. I had always been perceptive. I could've been a detective. I could've been blind and still been able to solve crimes and mysteries. I was almost like a superhero sometimes.
"No no, the pr-o-ber," he said way too deliberately, adding an unnecessary syllable. I figured she was either six years old or retarded. If she was that young she shouldn't be wearing nail polish. And if she was retarded she'd better not be allowed to play with the drills.
"Thank you. Now can I get some suc-tion? Suc-tion?"
She put the thin vacuum tube in my mouth and it sucked and slurped the blood from the back of my throat as Doug kept hacking away. I could breathe again. This woman had saved my life. I would probably marry her, even if she was six years old and retarded. We would have a strange life together.
"Oh gosh, you two haven't even met! If someone's putting their hands in your mouth you should at least know their name," Doug said. "Shane, this is my assistant, Marlene."
A head leaned over close to me, eclipsing the tricky, paranormal light. There was a serene halo of blond hair lit up all around her face. Single strands hung down like icicles. It was beautiful.
"HI NICE TO MEET YOU!" she shouted atonally into my gaping mouth.
I saw this documentary once that had black and white footage of a man in goggles and baggy clothes. He looked vaguely German, or like someone the Germans would've taken prisoner back when everything was black and white. He was pale and skinny and his head was shaved bald. His legs were in stiff, clunky iron boots and his arms were shackled and pulled straight down at his sides by taut chains bolted to the floor. He looked very nervous.
Then shit started flying all over the place. He was standing in a wind tunnel. The force of the wind blew his baggy shirt and pants tight against his skinny body and the fabric flapped and rippled behind him frantically as his arms shook in the shackles, but the iron ski boots kept him from blowing away. The goggles protected his eyes but his mouth was wide open and his lips were pulled back exposing his teeth like a horse on one of those hillbilly postcards. He looked like he was screaming but the only sound was the whir of turbines and the rushing wind. That's where the footage ended, but I'm pretty sure his head got blown off soon after. I think it was some kind of experiment.
And that's how I felt. Like a vaguely German prisoner in leg irons and chains whose scream could not be heard above the deaf girl wailing in my face. Soon my head would be gone too.
Later, as Marlene was putting away the sharpo and the prober and humming loud and off-key to herself, Doug leaned towards me and said, "She's deaf you know." But he said it under his breath, discreetly, so she wouldn't hear.
I spit more blood into the sink.
Doug spent most of his time freaking out in his back office, so that's how I got to know deaf Marlene.
I'd never actually talked to a deaf person before but I'd been swimming and gotten water stuck in my ears lots of times, felt that underwater silence as I shook my head and watched people's mouths moving without hearing the words, so I knew what it was like for her. I could empathize. And I always used to watch reruns of The Facts of Life when I came home from school and I had vivid, uncomfortable memories of those episodes where Blair's stand up comedian cousin would mock herself to get laughs and teach tolerance to Mrs. Garrett and the rest of the girls. She had cerebral palsy but she talked like a deaf person, so the lesson was the same. I could sympathize, and pity.
"Hey so how long have you worked in this place?" I said.
She was standing right next to me looking at a dental chart, and of course she couldn't hear a goddamn word I was saying. I barely resisted the impulse to clap or snap my fingers.
"Hey So How Long Have You Worked In This Place?" I said again, because sometimes it is hard to remember not to be an ass.
Marlene glanced up in mid-sentence and saw that my mouth was moving, and when it stopped she smiled and nodded her head and laughed quietly and politely, just like hearing people do when they don't know what the fuck you just said. Blair's cousin was right. We are all the same.
We stared at each other and it was so awkward I considered murdering myself or giving her the finger just for something to do, but instead I made a fist and stuck out my thumb and screwed it into my cheek. I saw a monkey do it on Sesame Street once. It means apple in sign language.
"APPLE! LIKE THE MONKEY!" she shouted, genuinely excited. Deaf girls love Sesame Street. We both laughed for as long as we could, which was for much longer than it was funny.
She had too many teeth going in different directions. Her hair was a frizzy mess, like she was three weeks past a bad perm, and the blond dye kit was obviously cheap and self-applied. But still, she pretty much looked like anybody else. She didn't look especially deaf. But she was. She was.
There was the kind of silence you can only have when it's high noon, or when one of you is deaf.
I pointed at her, then pinched my nose closed.
She narrowed her eyes, confused, then shouted, "I'M NOT STINK!"
And we laughed about that for a long time.
When the detective told me she was dead there was a pause in my head where I thought of absolutely nothing, a hitch where nothing happened, just before the engine caught. When it did I wanted to make myself scream "No!" and start crying, but I knew that I couldn't, even...

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Neilan, Paul
Editore: St. Martin's Press
ISBN 10: 0312351747 ISBN 13: 9780312351748
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Neilan, Paul
Editore: St. Martin's Press (2006)
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