Trouble, by Jesse Kellerman

I know you’ll all be relieved to read a review written by me which isn’t about a Dean Koontz novel. No, no. The looks on your faces are all the thanks I need.

Trouble is an extremely impressive thriller written by a young novelist. I found it gripping, frightening, and engaging. The writing was elegant and crisp, the characters real and sympathetic, and often very funny.

And yet, in the end, I found it unsatisfying.

The concept is promising. It’s the old “Fatal Attraction” scenario—the hero gets sexually involved with a woman who turns out to be a psychopath. The twist in Trouble is that the woman doesn’t want to hurt the hero. She wants him to hurt her.

The main character is Jonah Stem. He’s a medical student in his third year—that purgatorial year when you work long hours, get treated like a beast of burden, and subsist on a couple hours of sleep a night—in a Manhattan hospital. Twice a month he takes the train to visit his former girlfriend, who is sliding into schizophrenia, to help her father with her care.

Yet he’s not too beaten down to get involved when, on his way home from work one night, he sees a large homeless man standing with a knife over a young woman. He jumps in to protect her, and when it’s all over the attacker is dead, and Jonah is a tabloid hero.

It doesn’t hurt that the girl is extremely cute.

Eventually they bump into each other again, and there are sparks, and they do what modern young people are expected to do. (I should probably note here that there’s a fair amount of sex in this book, some of it pretty kinky.)

But gradually it becomes clear that this woman has something more wrong with her than simple loose morals. She wants to be hurt. She demands that Jonah hurt her. She is convinced that Jonah has committed himself to an “art project” with her, and she’s utterly shameless in manipulating and threatening him, and those around him, to get his cooperation.

And then it gets worse.

If a story like this could have been written (it couldn’t) back in the 1950s (for instance) there would have been an implicit moral lesson. “Don’t have sex with people you’ve just met,” or even, “Don’t have sex with someone you’re not married to.”

I see no sign of a lesson of any kind in Trouble, though. Not that all stories have to have explicitly stated morals. But in a classic story the hero is expected to at least learn something from his ordeal. In this book, the hero seems to be pretty much unchanged in the end by the horrible events he experiences. The only lesson the story seems to teach is that it’s dangerous to help people. But even that (bad) lesson doesn’t seem to be the point here. I guess the point is that stuff happens, and sometimes it gets really intense, you know?

Jesse Kellerman is the son of two bestselling mystery novelists, Jonathan and Faye Kellerman. I’m a big fan of his dad’s and not much of a fan of his mother’s. Jesse didn’t need their help to get published, though, I suspect. He’s a real talent, and a very accomplished storyteller. Expect big things from him.

I just hope he can find a way to write stories with something at stake in them.

3 thoughts on “Trouble, by Jesse Kellerman”

  1. That’s interesting. I had forgotten that you were not a fan of Kellerman when I was at a used book store a few days ago. I thought about getting one of his, but I didn’t. I was still looking for Klavan, whom I found and took home “Don’t Say a Word” and “Damnation Road.” No, it was “Dynamite Road!” Rot, I meant to pick up “Damnation Street,” which is his latest. Oh well.

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