Michael Grothaus (www.michaelgrothaus.com)
Orenda Books (orendabooks.co.uk)
Tonight I’m having sex with Audrey Hepburn.
Jerry Dresden is something of a loner. Obsessed with sex and celebrity – and, very often, both at the same time – he spends his days working at the Art Institute of Chicago, and his nights in front of the computer, hunting down the latest faked images of the world’s most famous women. When one of his colleagues is murdered and a Van Gogh on loan to the Institute is stolen, suspicion quickly falls on Jerry. But he’s fairly sure he’s innocent. And when he meets Epiphany, a young woman who says she needs his help, he knows for certain he’s in deep trouble: Epiphany is the killer and the thief, and she has framed Jerry to ensure his cooperation. It doesn’t help that Epiphany thinks she talks to God. Following Epiphany from Chicago to Mexico, and from there to Europe – because of the promise of evidence of his innocence that Epiphany has in her possession – Jerry finds himself at the centre of a sex-trafficking scandal organised by Hollywood’s most powerful people, and unlocks dark memories that he has buried for almost twenty years.
I’m going to be perfectly honest: when it comes to sex in fiction, I’m not a big fan, especially when it doesn’t really (seem to) add much to the story at hand. So, for the first third of Michael Grothaus’ debut novel, I found myself constantly on the verge of packing it in. The novel’s opening line, above, more or less sums up the story’s central character, Jerry, a man who has taken masturbation to a whole new level, and who revels in sharing the details with the reader. Don’t get me wrong, Jerry is a funny guy, and finds himself in the middle of an intriguing mystery with an intense young woman for whom the word “captivating” seems to have been invented. So I persevered, and I would urge anyone who finds themselves in the same position to do the same. There is a point, around about the one-third mark where it feels like a switch has been flicked: the narrative takes on a much darker hue, and Jerry’s obsession takes a back seat to a new obsession with staying alive.
Told in the first person from Jerry’s point of view, the story gives us time to get to know our guide before throwing him in at the deep end. After losing his younger sister to leukaemia as a young boy, and being involved in the car accident that ended his father’s life, Jerry has gone off the rails. He suffers from delusions, often seeing people who aren’t there, and has a reputation with the people at work for inventing girlfriends. It comes as a great surprise to Jerry, then, when he discovers that Epiphany is, in fact, real. Unfortunately for him, her interest in him is not what he might have hoped for, and before long she is leading him on a dangerous journey across the world, all because the voices in her head told her that he could help.
In Jerry’s mind – and thus in the reader’s – Epiphany becomes a sort of modern-day Joan of Arc, a young woman who believes she has a direct line to God, and is on a mission that he has sanctioned. In stark contrast to Jerry’s comedic persona, Epiphany is a tortured soul, a woman not afraid to use violence to achieve her goals. As the story develops, it becomes immediately clear what Epiphany’s background is, but even that doesn’t help to soften the blow of the bombshell that she drops on Jerry, and on us, when she reveals exactly how he can help her.
From its comic beginnings, Epiphany Jones grows steadily darker until it becomes a book that is incredibly difficult to read at times: Grothaus pulls no punches, dropping the reader into the middle of his child trafficking and sex slavery storyline right alongside Jerry. There are no artistic fades or camera-pans here, just a brutal realism – even filtered, as it is, through Jerry’s mind – that leaves the reader with no questions about where their sympathies lie. This marked contrast between the first and second halves of the novel brings with it a surreal sense that we have taken a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in a completely different story. We are, in a way, taken unawares, lulled into a false sense of security before being exposed to the true horror of the dark underbelly of the world.
Despite my qualms with the book’s beginning, Epiphany Jones is one of the strongest and certainly the most original debut I’ve read this year. It’s a beautifully-written piece, and the author knows how to strike the right balance between comedy and real-life horror to ensure that he doesn’t alienate any part of his audience. Underpinned by a strong plot, Epiphany Jones is, nonetheless, driven by its quirky characters and by the relationships between them. Michael Grothaus has produced a mature and engaging debut that is sure to divide readers right down the middle and that, for me, is the ultimate sign of a great storyteller. Not to be missed.