The Follower by Jason Starr

The Follower

by Jason Starr

Published by St. Martin’s Minotaur

320 pages, 2007

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Me and My Shadow

Reviewed by Anthony Rainone

The case could be made that no one is better than Jason Starr when it comes to writing repellent psychopathic characters. This particular skill flowers in The Follower, his newest thriller, set on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The story builds around Peter Wells, an unstable stalker who’s come into an inheritance that allows him plenty of free time in which to set up his latest victim, a 22-year-old woman named Katie Porter. Starr burrows down into the core of each character in this novel, and the reader gets to know them better than anyone ever knows anyone else in New York City. Whether their motivations are heinous or innocent, the author dissects them with cold accuracy.

Wells is not native to Manhattan soil; rather, his sociopathic and homicidal nature came to the fore in his hometown of Lenox, Massachusetts. Nature versus nurture doesn’t really enter into the discussion about the roots of Wells’ deep psychosis, because he displays a warped personality early on in life. In fact, Wells takes the Oedipus complex stage to a whole other level.

When Peter Wells was nine years old he asked his mother if she would marry him someday. His mother didn’t take it seriously, acting like it was a big joke -- maybe her son was going through some sort of romance period -- but Peter was dead serious. He told his mother again and again how much he loved her and how he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. Finally, she told him that it was getting to be too much, that he was starting to upset her, and that he had to stop it. Although Peter knew that his mother really was in love with him and just didn’t want to admit it, he stopped expressing his feelings because the last thing he wanted was for the woman he loved more than anything to be mad at him.

Peter Wells’ fascination with his female parent assumes particularly grotesque proportions, and his deeply rooted psychological malformation begins to transfer itself to other women, first in Lenox, then later in New York City. Wells relocates to the Big Apple, specifically to pursue the aforementioned Ms. Porter (“Katie was so beautiful, so perfect in every way, that it was hard for Peter to stop staring at her”), who is the younger sister of Heather Porter, a woman he’d known back in Massachusetts. Wells first noticed Katie when she was still a teenager and would saunter into the ice-cream shop where he worked in Lenox.

Katie is like many of the nubile young women starting out in old Gotham -- she’s struggling into adulthood, and making plenty of dating mistakes along the way. She is currently involved romantically with a striving banker named Andrew Barnett. Barnett is not so much a bad person, though he is mainly interested in Katie for one thing: sex. (“He was a twenty-three-year-old single guy in Manhattan, and as far as he was concerned there were only two types of people in the world -- hot girls and everybody else.”)

Although stalker Wells makes it appear coincidental when he bumps into Katie at her Upper East Side health club, he’s actually planned everything out in detail, including how their first kiss will take place, how he will propose marriage to her (he has the ring already), and the Manhattan apartment they’ll live in (which he has purchased with part of his inheritance, for a cool $900,000). The unsuspecting woman is quite taken with the handsome Wells, five years her senior. The fact that Wells knew and perhaps even dated Katie’s older sister, Heather, who later committed suicide at college, doesn’t seem to preclude Katie from agreeing to eventually date the charming psychopath.

Given Wells’ obsession, and Katie’s propensity for attracting a fair share of horny males, it’s only a matter of time before the men around her begin to meet tragic ends at the hands of the deranged and jealous admirer. After Wells commits his first murder, the case falls into the lap of a low-regarded police detective named John Himoto, with the 19th Precinct. Himoto is considered the least qualified detective in the one-nine, as he readily acknowledges:

Although the idea of early retirement appealed to John, he’d decided he wasn’t going anywhere until he turned his career around. Over the last several years he’d been lead detective on four murder cases and hadn’t solved any of them. In fact, he had some of the worst stats of any detective in the city.

When Himoto’s boss is not satisfied with the job being done by the beleaguered detective, the case is quickly transferred to flashier detectives in the squad, partners Nick Barasco and Tony Martinelli. Himoto is left to deal with his personal problems, which include an estrangement from his gay son, Blake. But he isn’t immune from disappointment, and begins to repair his relationship with Blake. Himoto also comes to Katie’s aid, after she calls him, freaked out as she starts to suspect horrible things about Wells. While Barasco and Martinelli get in their own egocentric way, Himoto -- surprisingly -- shows the soul of a true detective determined to get his man.

Author Starr knows New York City (he is, after all, a native), and he apparently knows the young singles scene, too. In portraying his characters, he nails the attitudes of 20-something urbanites looking for romance, or just plain sex, and hoping at the same time to either build a career or establish the work experience necessary to get them into a good graduate school. His re-creation of banter between Barnett and his roommates in their East 95th Street apartment is both hilarious and spot-on accurate, as regards the mannerisms and sexual attitudes of young men.

“I admit I like to shoot my rod every once in a while,” Chris said, “but I think Greg’s the official jerk-off king of this apartment.” He looked at Greg. “Maybe that’s why you’re not getting laid -- because you’re jerking off too much. It’s fucking up your sex drive.”

“No, I’m not getting laid because I’m living with you guys,” Greg said.

Starr captures the pulse of the big city through the eyes of the newly initiated, remarking on the plethora of shops, bars, and restaurants that provide distraction for the young from their less-than-stellar lives.

This novel shifts back and forth between Manhattan and Lenox, not only in flashbacks but in later scenes that find Katie fleeing New York and Wells, both. Though Peter Wells manages -- if barely -- to keep his dark personality in check through most of the story, he becomes unglued at the end, even with his beloved Katie (“Creative visualization is bullshit. I visualized the ending. I visualized it a million fucking times and it didn’t go like this.”). Every principal character in this novel endures some form of transformation, with some ending up more scarred or irreparably damaged than others. The Follower provides a denouement that is a satisfactory conclusion to the tale, yet that also causes ripples likely to emanate for years to come. As always, Starr leaves the reader feeling thoroughly entertained, but at the same time creeped-out. | September 2007

Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine, a regular contributor to The Rap Sheet, and the author of a blog called Anthony Rainone’s Criminal Thoughts.