Before reading and reviewing Chris Rhatigan’s wonderful Race to the Bottom, I read two of Rhatigan’s earlier novellas, A Pack of Lies and Squeeze. These two books focus on Lionel Kaspar, a community newspaper reporter who is more interested in drinking, gambling and figuring out ways not to do work — not always in that order.
A Pack of Lies is part of Two Bullets Solve Everything (All Due Respect Books) that features novellas by Rhatigan and Ron Sayles. The Sayles’ contribution is Disco Rumble Fish, a mid-70s novella about SWAT team.
A Pack of Lies begins with Kaspar trying to shake down a new developer in a suburb in central Connecticut. The developer, Len Gray, laughs off the attempted extortion with, “I was just curious. You’re trying to sell coverage in a suburban newspaper? Seriously? The fuck is wrong with you?”
Kaspar writes his retribution.
I wrote about twelve inches on why Len Gray was a know-nothing shithead and how he was going to ruin Wallingtown with a project that would destroy the environment, cause a never-ending traffic jam, and make the neighborhood a ghetto. Constructed as many half-truths as I could devise. All wrapped in the detached, objective reporter jive that I spouted like it was my first language.
Between Kaspar’s attempt to strong-arm kickbacks, his never-ending drinking, and some real bad gambling decisions, his life begins to go seriously bad.
Published a year later, Squeeze (All Due Respect Books) is a prequel to all the shit that went down in Kaspar’s life in A Pack of Lies. Rhatigan opens ups Squeeze with Kaspar as a low-level government hack at a Public Health Department. Besides leaking information to a local journalist, Kaspar is already drinking like a professional and beginning on the road of becoming a degenerate gambler. Luck shines on Kaspar as a local reporter recommends him for a job with the local newspaper. If you think you don’t like to work, you don’t have anything on Kaspar — he makes sloths look energetic. Once getting the reporter gig, Kaspar works on two scams: writing fake human interest stories and extorting money from public officials in return for suppressing embarrassing stories.
Tired of being shown up by Kaspar’s success, a competing reporter begins investigating Kaspar’s fictional stories. Though Kaspar has already put in place everything for his life to deteriorate, the rival writer just gives it all a big push.
I enjoyed reading Rhatigan’s take on his characters’ self-induced despair and subsequent decline whether it is in the Lionel Kaspar novellas or Race to the Bottom. The whiskey I drank while reading these tales of descent goes down a bit slower as I quietly hope I won’t end up as a character in a Rhatigan story.
I stumbled home, cursing with each soggy step, my head already throbbing with a hangover, the sourness of too much beer swirling around my mouth. The day had been clear and crisp in the morning, but clouds rolled in during the afternoon and the temps plummeted. At one point, I sat in the shrubbery in front of a one-story home—cars rushing past, wind whipping around, a group of black kids rolling by on bikes—put my head between my knees, huddled in my thin blue jacket.