Robert Stassi, a Methodist minister with two master’s degrees and a Ph. D., is explaining the exterminator business to the new recruit.
Stassi is called The Most Dangerous Man because he has nothing left to lose in life. His wife died of suicide after many attempts, and he still longs for her and hates her. He took the job at Exterminator Power after years of living homeless and suicidal himself.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that he took to the job of rooting out, driving away and killing vermin of all sorts — mice, insects, rats. He sees his victims “as God’s creatures that have so much more in common with us than we can bear to admit.” After all, they eat, they mate, and they fight to survive.
Killing a rat, he explains to the new guy, is difficult. Sometimes, the best way is to strangle them.
“Things come out of you when you’re strangling a rat. Like you’re finding a primitive violence in yourself you didn’t know was there.…You’re strangling the thing and find yourself yelling and cursing. You don’t even know why you’re doing it until the rat stops breathing and then there’s a brief calm.”
Later comes guilt.
Stassi is one of many storytellers in Fred Waitzkin’s new novel Strange Love. His recruit is the book’s 65-year-old narrator, a novelist who had a well-reviewed first book half a life ago and then an ignored second book and none since.
The narrator, though, is a listener in Strange Love. As he relates early on, Rachel, the woman he is captivated with in the tiny town of Fragata in Costa Rica, thinks he’s a big-name writer and expects him to hear her story and put it into a book. But he has no plans for that.
He does have vague plans for Rachel, though. He wants to make love to her, and he does in a minor hand-holding, kiss-kiss manner at the end of every night in the beaten-down lounge that she runs, a courting dance with her calling all the steps and always stopping short.
That’s not so bad, given their age difference. She’s nearly three decades younger than he is. And she has an 18-month-old son Angelo. And she’s married to her family and to this strange town.
How strange? Her lounge was once owned by a rich American who turned it into a kind of clubhouse for the town children. He gave them burgers and fries and ice cream and taught them sex games with each other and with him.
That was a long time ago, and, now, many of the local men have wives and boyfriends and “love to touch tiny babies” on their genitals. Rachel’s aunt says:
“Everyone sees. It’s natural.”
Rachel’s family is strange as well, with her mother leaving for months at a time with a sailboat captain boyfriend and her aunt still luring wandering male eyes in her tiny bikini and her sister Sondra wearing an even tinier bikini, so tiny as to seem not there at all.
And the narrator is drunk on the person and well-covered body of Rachel and on the story of her life which she unrolls throughout the course of this 122-page novel.
Why is she still there when every other good-looking woman flees with a wealthy sugar daddy, at least, until they turn 40? Why her aura of sorrow? Why her attachment — or is it imprisonment? — to the lounge? Why her baby?
Along the way, as Rachel tells her story, other stories are told. Sammy Davis Jr. makes an appearance for a few pages. George Plimpton is interrupted on a Manhattan street. A local fisherman captures a great fish and is sad for killing it.
And the narrator works for many years at Exterminator Power, killing his own share of rats, sometimes by strangling them.
Strange Love is an odd, short book of tales and yarns with a surprisingly strong afterlife.
Patrick T. Reardon