Joyride is my second Jack Ketchum novel, the first being The Girl Next Door. I’ve come to think of Ketchum’s writing as similar to a punch in the face–simple, brutal and effective. Despite the lurid material with which Ketchum works, despite the fact that most of it occurs “on-camera,” and despite having been considered by The Village Voice an author of torture porn, he does not linger too lovingly on the gory details; he just tells it like it is. This economical quality makes his prose both powerful and highly disturbing to read.
What separates any of us from someone like Wayne Lock? This is the question Rule faces at the end of the novel, when he realizes that he became so deeply involved in the case because Wayne reminded him of himself. Rule is no murderer; he is a good cop, but in his mind he destroys lives just as much as Lock does. We all do, simply “by being who we are.” It’s an issue few of us would care to examine in our own lives, the effect that any given word or deed may have on another. The insects splattered on Rule’s windshield at the beginning of the book illustrate the idea that even a harmless act like driving destroys lives we view as insignificant. Rule has recently ended a relationship and feels a tremendous amount of guilt for the effect it has had on his ex and her young daughter. While this appears to be a function of Rule’s ego as much as anything else, anyone who has ever experienced a bad break-up can attest that it feels a little bit, at first, like being murdered. But our every day behavior toward others, while less dramatic, can kill the spirit in a hundred little ways. A cruel word, a look, a laugh. How many victims might each of us claim? And what if one of those victims were recording each incident in a notebook…
Wayne Lock destroys lives quite literally. He compiles a list of people whose perceived offenses against him can be as minor as having a name he dislikes, but what makes him frightening is that we have all, at one time or another, kept a mental inventory of people who have wronged us. We have all thought at one time or another, “If I could just get my hands on so-and-so…” We can relate to him on that level, at least, and it’s a little horrifying. But most of us, of course, will never cross the line into violence, and witnessing an actual murder would certainly not encourage anyone who is mentally stable to start working on their own personal hit list. Wayne, inspired and excited after Carole and Lee’s murder of Carole’s abusive ex-husband, decides they will be the ones to help him attain the special feeling one achieves only through killing another person. He cannot distinguish that their act was driven by desperation, whereas Wayne wants to kill for the sheer enjoyment of it. By the time Wayne goes on the bloody rampage in his own neighborhood, with Lee dead and Carole severely injured, he is experiencing “the very best day of his life.” Through the act of murder, through his own death at the hands of the police, he has awakened to his own twisted version of love. After all, there are few acts more intimate than watching the life drain out of someone. This, along with Psycho, may be the only text in this class where I felt certain we were dealing with someone who is truly psychotic. Wayne’s mental state noticeably deteriorates throughout the course of the novel until, near the end, he is in the grip of a delusion so severe he does not even care that he’s about to die.
If there is one thing that bothers me about Ketchum’s writing it’s the relentlessness with which his female characters are abused. I’ve read only two of his books, but in both the female protagonist is beaten, raped and tortured almost non-stop. Carole survives and Lee does not, but that does not make her a “strong” character, for she is victimized by nearly everyone in the book, just like Meg (who does in fact die) in The Girl Next Door. Her portrayal of an abused woman is accurate–and unfortunately I know from experience–but it’s troubling that his characters are subjected to these things over and over again. Referring back to John Dixon’s post about Seven, I do have a “button” after all and this is it. While Wayne Lock, as a power/sadistic rapist, ties into the chapter on sexual predators we read in Howdunit, I share Kevin Smith’s disgust (as voiced in the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated) at how often rape is used as a convenient plot device, both in Hollywood and in fiction. I started to question what sort of attitude Jack Ketchum truly harbors toward women. And that is a shame, because I admire him a great deal as a writer.