Al Kenner, the protagonist of the French novelist Marc Dugain’s eighth novel, is a quiet teenager who is almost seven feet tall and has an IQ that rivals that of Albert Einstein. He lives with his grandmother, an illustrator of children’s books who constantly harangues him and his docile grandfather, on a farm in rural California. On November 22, 1963, the same day Lee Harvey Oswald shoots President Kennedy, Al is out hunting garden pests for his grandmother, when he decides to shoot her in the back of the neck with his Winchester rifle. He then kills his grandfather because he can’t bear causing him “a terrible amount of pain”. After turning himself in to the authorities, Al – who is based on the actual “Co-Ed Killer” Edmund Kemper – ends up in a psychiatric hospital populated by “rapists, the crazies who didn’t distinguish between a woman, a man, a child or a goat as long as they could bang it”. He loathes the idea of being seen as one of these psychopaths.
Over chess matches, he opens up to a clever pipe-smoking psychiatrist named Dr Leitner about his dysfunctional childhood. Al’s mother, a victim of sexual abuse, made him sleep beside a basement boiler, and she perpetually emasculated Al’s father, a veteran traumatized by the Second World War. Al reveals that he has decapitation fantasies, which sometimes lead him to orgasm. A board of psychiatrists eventually releases him on parole, and he ends up in Santa Cruz near his alcoholic mother, selling Harley-Davidson motorcycles. He spends his free time obsessively picking up hitchhikers and binge drinking in a bar frequented by cops, soon latching on to another father figure, a homicide detective totally ignorant of Al’s past. The officer, impressed by his new friend’s psychological insights, catastrophically hires him to help track down serial killers and missing persons, and even encourages Al to marry his daughter.
Dugain periodically interrupts this suspenseful sequence of events with third-person tracts about Al’s present life in prison, in which he makes recordings of books for blind people and converses with Susan, an ageing hippie from his past. But the strongest parts of this novel are the beguiling first-person tracts told from Al’s perspective, filled with wry similes (“My anger was like the temperature of a kid struck by meningitis”). His tone is affable and seemingly candid, but he is clearly unreliable. When Dr Leitner dies in a tragic fishing accident, Al deludedly claims that the “effect on me was neutral on the emotional level”. Al’s unknowability elicits a curious sympathy in the reader, unsure if he is a victim or a psychopath.
Dugain’s novel reaffirms the connection between America’s militarism and its culture of gun violence. It casts a spotlight on the sociopolitical fragmentation that defined the country in the 1960s and continues to do so today, sometimes through heavy-handed dialogue, but usually, and more seamlessly, through ominous plotting, precise characterization and Al’s revealing monologues. Al disdains liberal elites, and also hippies, who “made a decision to look ugly” and “wanted to talk to me about all kinds of weird things, a mixture of Jesus Christ, peace in Vietnam, reincarnation and a whole heap of other bullshit all jumbled together in their drug-addled brains”. He ends up thriving in southern California where many middle-aged individuals are alienated by the counter-culture taking root; they see him as a “straight-up guy”, a repository of old-fashioned American values. The way these conservatives embrace Al offers a sly indictment of America’s contemporary right, which, the author implies, has aligned with allegedly righteous forces that are actually capable of wreaking havoc.