(Editor’s note: The following review comes from Steven Nester, the host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio show heard on the Public Radio Exchange [PRX]. Nester is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Rap Sheet, Mystery Scene and Firsts Magazine. He last wrote for January Magazine about Jonathan Ashley’s The Cost of Doing Business.)
Ask yourself this, you outlaw bohemians who view the suburban cul-de-sac at the end of the bourgeois rainbow as a fate worse than death: If you planned to chuck it all to avoid having to endure an undistinguished life; if you wished to live large and make a last-ditch statement of your existence, then check out with some Bonnie and Clyde panache (didn’t they die pretty — at least in the 1967 film?), what would you do? You would live dangerously in order to acquire material for a novel, write it, party until your money ran out, then dress up as a skeleton and overdose on sleeping pills on a prominent float in Florida’s Key West Fantasy Fest parade, right?
Now that’s a bang worth hearing. It also happens to be the game plan for Punch, an older, half-Jamaican, half-Italian half-hearted desperado, and Juliette, a desultory 20-something waitress at a Tennessee Cracker Barrel, the main players in Vicki Hendricks’ much-missed and thankfully reissued, 2000 novel, Voluntary Madness (New Pulp Press). These star-crossed but well-suited lovers — partners in crime and co-dependence — stumble upon each other in a white-trash version of what Hollywood used to call a “meet
cute.” Juliette wanders into the 7-Eleven that Punch was about to rob and is immediately smitten by “his hard muscles, with the smoothest Kahlua and cream skin, thick black hair past his shoulders, a view of the world evolved past our
time — I’m his, body and soul, no regrets, till I die …” This is a love story of two people who need unconditional love, without any kind of foreplay or background check. The dating scene was a lot more fun before the advent of Match.com, for sure.
Punch is a deadbeat with a sense of adventure, and in Juliette’s eyes he’s a man of the world. He’s played guitar in a band, troubadoured around Europe, knows how to order food at fancy restaurants, and possesses enough world-weary je regrette rien to make her swoon and substitute his beloved rum for a curative cup of hemlock. An affable opportunist who is also sincere, Punch tells her that she saved his life, and dedicates himself to her as much as her modest inheritance and his dissolute ways will allow. The only sin Punch acknowledges is the sin of being ordinary, and this borders on the nihilistic, giving weight to his suicidal endgame. “Nothing’s right or wrong, good or bad. Just more or less interesting,” he says.
In the “you complete me department,” Punch provides what Juliette lacks. “ … I always wanted to be a writer. We read about Hemingway in high school, and I’d be an adventure-novelist myself, if I had the brains — which I don’t. I know my limitations. So being with Punch is the next best thing, the only thing for me.” Juliette possesses what Punch walked into the 7-Eleven for in the first place, money — and lucky for him, also the instant compassion of a needy person. Juliette brings more to the relationship than complacency and care-giving; and if their first meeting doesn’t limn her as a chance-taker, one of her private pleasures is to wander Key West at odd hours and “flash” passersby.
Punch, on the other hand, is a diabetic and a little less mobile, and seems weary of the day-to-day. He’d rather spend his time slouched on a bar stool than writing his much-vaunted but unseen novel, which he musters the courage to do
when Juliette gently prods him. Aside from being Punch’s sweet-natured taskmaster, Juliette is also his muse. “I don’t interfere with his art,” she says, “I just set up interesting situations to stimulate it.” But what this pair are really doing is living their lives on their terms; and as Juliette’s inheritance dwindles the situations become more interesting.
They soon realize that armed robbery, another form of experience for the book, could also be a way to solve their cash-flow dilemma and spice things up a bit. First, they break into Key West’s Ernest Hemingway House & Museum, intent on theft. While there, Punch raises the ante to the house limit when he strikes and kills an elderly security guard. Free from compunction for lesser crimes, they then work their way up to robbing restaurants for food, and ultimately emptying the pockets of patrons at the fancier restaurants in town. The press covers their exploits and they gain some renown and a reputation to uphold.
Juliette is willing to follow her partner to the end, though she carries the hope that he can be rehabilitated. “But if Punch writes his great American Novel,” she muses, “I’m figuring he’ll want to live. He’ll be happy forever and won’t have to drink himself into a coma anymore.” Yet this outcome is not to be.
The titular “voluntary madness” in Hendricks’ tale is alcohol, something Punch submits to almost nonstop. As the two plan their path to oblivion, Juliette knows the best way to keep Punch sober is to keep him busy. (“I’m amazed at the way he can stay sober when he has mischief in mind.”) As much as she loves Punch when he’s sober, and as deep as her commitment is to his doomsday plan, the irony is that this busyness will lead to the completion of their misguided life’s work. ◊