The reader of Trinity College professor Stewart O'Nan's latest novel will have a tough time deciding between laughing and cringing. It consists of a semi-candid confession of a death-row inmate spinning her tale on tape to Stephen King — yes, the bestselling author, who has bought the rights to her gruesome story of drugs, robbery, multiple murders, and dead-end madness in America's heartland.
Marjorie Standiford, besides being "completely innocent," is locked in a fierce battle with her sister in crime, Natalie Kramer, who was another principle in the killing spree: you see, Natalie already has a book out telling her version of the atrocities.
It's not a pretty picture, to be sure: Mass murderers mud-wrestling for notoriety and what little high ground they can find, with bestselling authors who are hooked on real-life drama serving as their accomplices.
At one point, Marjorie is discoursing on her fear of death when she asks Mr. King, "What are you afraid of? No one reading your books after you're dead, I bet. Hey, it's okay, they'll still watch your movies, and that's what counts." O'Nan pokes fun at the King of Horror throughout.
What isn't quite so funny is what Marjorie has done — and how she is alternately sorry for what she has done or insistent on her innocence. The stabbings, the executions, the cruelty that she took part in with her husband and lover, Natalie, can somehow be explained. "I was just there," she says. So was her young child — she takes pains to explain that she couldn't find a babysitter (and what would she have told the sitter? "I'll be back in 5 to 10 for armed robbery").
To her credit, Marjorie can't manage to make herself believe her own rationalizations. "It's like nothing existed except me ... I was the only one that counted. They were there to please me, to make count more," she confesses.
Despite steady doses of dark humor, O'Nan's third novel follows in the footsteps of its predecessors. It is deeply disturbing and paints a bleak picture of modern life: dysfunctional families, dead-end jobs, characters trapped in empty, aimless lives.
Marjorie's odyssey is sad and yet compelling. She's an oddly likable narrator who has found some semblance of direction and meaning in her own life, only after helping to end the lives of eight others. She loves her late murderous husband in spite of it all, and the reader isn't quite sure whether this is redeeming or simply appalling.