Fiction – paperback; Europa Editions; 340 pages; 2014. Translated from the French by Howard Curtis. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Marc Dugain’s The Avenue of the Giants is loosely based on the life story of California “Co-ed Killer” Edmund Kemper, who was active in the 1970s.
It is one of the most astonishing books I’ve ever read, not the least because it’s so gruesome and shocking in places, but also because it has such a strong and powerful narrative voice. The first 100 pages are especially gripping as you are placed firmly in the head of Al Kenner, a depraved yet highly intelligent killer. His first person narrative is immediate and rational, yet coolly detached, making for a rather chilling reading experience.
A murderer’s memoir
When the book first opens, we meet Kenner in prison. Told in the third person, it reveals that he is desperate to get his memoir published. His only visitor is Susan, a woman in her 60s, who had a lucky escape from Kenner in the past. She is submissive to him in a way partly explained by the fact she is ever so grateful he spared her life.
The story then switches to the first person and covers Kenner’s exploits from his mid-teens onwards. We soon learn that he is not your average teenager. He is 7ft 2in tall, exceptionally intelligent (his IQ is supposedly “higher than Einstein’s”) and struggles to make friends. He has depraved fantasies about women but stresses that he would never carry them out.
My fantasies were enough for me. It never occurred to me to want to sleep with a girl for real, not only because I knew it would be difficult for me to find one who’d agree to it, but because it was a matter of control. In my fantasies I controlled everything, but what might have happened in real life? Anything might have gone wrong.
He’s constantly bored, sees himself as superior to everyone else, but has “a visceral fear of violence”. And yet one day, in 1963, he picks up a shotgun and brutally shoots dead his paternal grandmother, with whom he is living, because he is sick of her controlling his life. He then shoots his grandfather because he doesn’t want him to feel sad about the loss of his wife.
Kenner then goes on the run, but he is upset that his crime — which he hoped would make him famous — has been upstaged by Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinates President Kennedy on the very same day. He gives himself up and then spends the next five years in a psychiatric hospital, where he develops an academic interest in psychiatry.
When he’s released on parole he does his best to fit back in to society and reinvents himself as a fine upstanding citizen: he becomes a quasi police “profiler” helping to track down student runaways, gets engaged to become married and re-establishes contact with this estranged mother.
But all is not well. He struggles to contain “bad thoughts” and drowns them in vast quantities of alcohol — he must drink two bottles of wine quickly before he begins to feel “normal”. He also finds it increasingly difficult to behave civilly towards his mother — and eventually this leads to his downfall.
A betrayal of confidence
When the book returns to the third person and we discover, right near the end, why Kenner is now back in prison seeking to get his memoir published, it comes as a terrific blow to the reader. Indeed, I felt winded — and betrayed. As a reader I’d been taken into his confidence, but he had not always been truthful and the crimes he carries out are utterly repulsive and shocking.
Dugain’s portrait of Kenner is exceptionally good. Instead of taking the easy route and painting him as a monster, he shows us all the complexity of his personality: his desire to be loved and respected; his need to control people and events; the ways in which he adored women but was fearful of intimacy; his inability to let go of his own ego; his constant struggle between right and wrong; and the amazing talent he had to con and deceive.
The author is also very good at capturing the spirit of the times. Most of the novel is set in California during the 1960s counter-revolution (at the time when Ronald Reagan was governor), and Kenner is constantly “at war” with the hippies around him — he rails against their concepts of free love, drug use and communal living, which all seems rather dated now.
Unfortunately, the narrative is patchy in places — it loses momentum after those first 100 or so pages and never quite recovers — but because it’s such a deftly written account of a sociopathic character’s mindset it remains a compelling page-turner. However, it’s not for the faint-hearted: it covers some pretty gruesome, stomach-churning crimes (I often felt “dirty” reading it). But if you’re fascinated about what makes people carry out horrendous acts, then The Avenue of the Giants won’t disappoint — but it will take you to very, very dark places.