Related Articles: Literary, All

Murder in Three Acts

Michael Tolkin's Under Radar

When a book is dedicated in part to Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak, you know you're not in for a safe trip between the pages. Michael Tolkin's latest novel, Under Radar, is populated with monsters, beginning with the main character.

Tom Levy, a malpractice lawyer (always a good job choice for a murderer), defers to his wife's choice for family holiday: Jamaica. With his two children in tow, Tom considers the tropical milieu with a cloak of disdain. Their hotel is chock-a-block with "trapped almost-rich." This bothers Tom because he is completely rich, not almost, and he could easily afford a four-star hotel populated with wealthy hard bodies.

Instead, his neighbors are sexless mothers and "Realized Iras," which Tolkin defines as "otherwise grotesque men of commerce whose vivacious appetites make them sexually attractive."

Tom amuses himself by creating mini dramas about these vacationing couples until his eighth day on the island, when one pair snares his attention enough to step out of his head. Tom is attracted to a woman he calls "Jane Austen," based on the reading material he sees on her lap. Jane Austen is married to a Realized Ira named Barry. Tom imagines Barry's demise.

When he sees Barry encouraging Tom's four-year-old daughter to buck and grind to the Jamaican rhythms at poolside like a porn actress, he gives himself permission to make his imagination a reality. The next day Tom throws Barry into a waterfall following a visit to Bob Marley's grave. People see him do it. He is caught. Think Dostoevsky on ganja. This is Act One.

I don't want to give away Acts Two and Three but they involve folklore, a Kingston prison and a sailing trip to the South Pacific. Like Scheherazade, Tom must keep his prison mates fed with a steady stream of stories to parry his own death. Some of these stories rely on the group sex and religious questioning, which cropped up in Tolkin's film, The Rapture.

Tolkin is best known for his novel and screenplay, The Player. In that book, a movie executive murders a screenwriter because the movie executive covets the writer's girlfriend and finds the writer professionally annoying. In both books a man of power murders an annoying male impediment. Yet only in this latest book, in the fictional world of "what ifs," Tolkin asks his protagonist, "What happens if you don't get away with it?"

Under Radar
By Michael Tolkin
Atlantic Monthly Press; ISBN: 0871138484
Hardcover, 212 pages (June 2002)

Would you like to submit a book review for consideration?
E-mail us for details and submission guidelines.