Before the surrealists began to melt away, Greek-born Italian metaphysicist painter Georgio de Chirico juxtaposed mannequins and aqueducts, the imaginary beside the concrete, liquid by solid on canvas. One of his paintings, probably stolen, adorns Nick Sweeney’s A Blue Coast Mystery. It ties the suite together, as startling and quirky as Sweeney’s tale and the characters who act it out.
Who can say if de Chirico believed in Heaven or Hell, but it is likely that Blue Coast’s rendering of Purgatorio would suit his sense of a metafisica landscape for an afterlife? The residents play out endless identical days in flats above foul garages, in art deco ruins, in dive hotels, or apartments won at gaming tables under suspicious circumstances. Once-stylish clothing metamorphizes from silk to nylon, nylon to poly. They fray, articles and residents. Cheesecloth and denim clothing shreds at stress points “for Heaven’s sake.” The bones of stories are told and retold across a tedium of eternity. Appetites vanish under addiction, lethargy, and neglect. There are only two colors in Purgatory. The fading yellow of hope and the sepia stain of nightmarish memory where a countess and heroin heiress suffers compulsions for cleanliness, compulsions that can never be satisfied.
In the tug-o-souls there is a polite dance of spider-swastikas and rescue bee patrols.
Nick Sweeney brings his least compromised and the most culpable creatures to the Côte d’Azur, saving them from the whips of Ottomans, White Cossacks, and Reds. They flee Armenian genocide or pogroms. They all assume relentless certainty is preferable to death. Then Sweeney pieces them into a disjointed but elegant and human mosaic: A war profiteer, a Greek making Turkish coffee in “a doll’s house cauldron,” a waterfront fig-packer, who counsels, “Your heart’s got to be in murder, more than in any other act.” There were musical pushers of “The Rolling Stones,” chauffers, an Inspectorate of Municipal Buildings, a hairstylist who leaves tendrils on the floor proving that the heroine survives. On the way to intermediate suffering, he adds ” one of those bearded British matelots from the Senior Service cigarette pack.” The hero and heroine are plucked for embezzlement, card sharping, and tango instruction.
While you might find A Blue Coast Mystery reminiscent of Kafka, here the author allows his principals’ escape from his nightmare. There are several avenues to climb down from de Chirico’s canvas. They can barter jewelry, links cut in the junkyard fence, or duck behind a passing bus to whisk the sufferer away to Paradiso. That bus might also block the view as a sinner secrets into the 1940 Dry Cleaners for spiritual cleansing.
You may also think my praise is too rich. Let me temper it. I am disappointed by the novel’s second word. Skip that and read the rest of this tale of existential wending. You have an eternity of time. You will find few better ways to spend a few hours.