Title: The Executor
Author: Jesse Kellerman
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons, April 2010
Rating: 3.0 out of 5
Summary: Things aren’t going well for Joseph Geist.
He’s broke. His graduate school advisor won’t talk to him. His girlfriend has kicked him out of her apartment, leaving him homeless and alone. It’s a tough spot for a philosopher to be in, and he’s ready to give up when an ad in the local paper catches his eye.
The ad reads: "Conversationalist wanted”.
Which sounds perfect to Joseph. After all, he’s never done anything in his life except play with words. And the elderly woman behind the ad turns out to be the ideal employer: brilliant, generous, and enchantingly old-world. Before long, Joseph has moved in with her, and has begun to feel quite comfortable in her big, beautiful house.
So comfortable, in fact, that he would do anything to stay there—forever.
From the author of The Genius, a dark parable about the choices we make, and the consequences they bring.
My Thoughts: Jesse Kellerman has written an intense and riveting story built upon an unusual and very unique premise that kept me reading well into the night, reluctant, at least initially, to put The Executor down. The lead character, Joseph Geist, is an intelligent, rational, moral, quiet and reserved, thinking and stoic character. His up-bringing was very unpleasant, rendering him unsure about himself and life in general. Getting through the day is difficult for him but he's so likeable and introspective that you find yourself rooting for him.
And then everything changes! The first two thirds of the book is unique and realistic, odd and interesting at the same time. The stage is set for an intense showdown between Joseph and his nemesis, Eric, but the book seriously disappoints when Kellerman, rather suddenly, veers off track into utter nonsense the last third of the book. It's really a shame because Kellerman created wonderful three-dimensional characters in Joseph as well as his "new" boss, Alma, her nephew, and Joseph's nemesis, Eric and Joseph's on-again, off-again girlfriend, Yasmina , who leap off the page. Therefore, when Joseph behaves in contravention to the Joseph we've come to know, this inconsistent transformation and the subsequent actions he undertakes are totally inconsistent and unbelievable.
The Executor opens when Joseph seems to have hit rock bottom. He's broke, he has no job, his girl-friend dumps him and he has no place to live. Quite by chance, he gets a job as a "conversationalist", meeting with Alma, an elderly woman, apparently having fascinating discussions about philosophy and who knows what else. Literally. Kellerman doesn't let us in on any of the conversations, only saying that they are stimulating and seem to keep both Alma and Joseph going, giving Alma a reason to keep living despite her ill health, and Joseph despite his struggles with relationships and school.
As one who has studied philosophy, not to mention any reader who at some point in their lives has contemplated the "big" questions, it's a major letdown never being privy to any of these discussions. I found myself frustrated and crying out for just a snippet of Joseph and Alma's conversations here and there, no matter how small. This omission, I soon learned, is a foreshadowing of further omissions and disappointments that come upon later in the book.
Soon after Joseph is invited to move in with Alma as a housemate and companion, he meets her freeloading nephew, Eric, who quickly becomes the bane of Joseph’s existence. Eric is a lazy, unconscionable leech. A user, moocher and manipulator. Eric is the "anti-Joseph". Joseph is a good person, a "moral agent" (in philosophical terms), who thinks things through and acts rationally. Eric doesn’t work, doesn’t go to school and only cares about himself. Eric becomes the only source of friction, if not outright disagreement, between Joseph and Alma.
Joseph feels free and at home with Alma in her house, it's as if he has "come home". He has overcome a pedestrian and blue collar family life and upbringing that tried to dissuade him from living a life based on introspection and study, denying the very essence of what Joseph has made of his life. Eric threatens the stability and comfort that Joseph has finally found in Alma‘s home. It's surprising, to say the least, when Joseph's character suddenly begins to change. He becomes a selfish, self-centered, greedy, aggressive, reacting-without-thinking person whose morals either take a back seat or are reasoned away. All too quickly Joseph is completely different than the man we were rooting for to the point that we no longer recognize him. It would have been more believable had he used his faith in philosophy, hard work and thoughtfulness to take care of the "Eric problem" Not to mention that at this point in the book there is a huge drag as we're sucked into page after page of the first of several of Joseph's rants, rambling incoherently, paranoid and distrustful, trying to come to terms with his new found wealth provided by Alma
Without giving major parts of the story away, suffice it to say that the book fails from the moment of Joseph's bizarre and totally uncharacteristic way of taking care of the conflict with Eric. It really is a shame that the author felt the need to suddenly turn the book into some kind of pseudo thriller story as it becomes impossible to continue to "root" for Joseph once he has broken from who we were made to think he truly is. (I find myself tempted to compare Joseph's descent to Annikan Skywalker's conversion to the Dark Side of the Force.) If Mr. Kellerman thinks he is presenting some unique situation where we are at odds with ourselves, wanting to root for Joseph but unsure of whether or not to do so, he is mistaken. The shift in Joseph's character and actions themselves are too hard to swallow, too drastic to believe. At times it almost seems as if there are two Josephs, just as if it seems that two different people authored this book. Anyway, I can't help but wonder if it was Mr. Kellerman's intention that we continue to support Joseph, hoping he escapes from his self created debacle unscathed? I think it's safe to say that to entertain the notion we would still be rooting for him is completely out of the question.
Why the author went down this road is a mystery to me. The Executor began with such promise. There are so many other ways Joseph could have gone about handling the situation he found himself in, so many ways that were more reasonable, more in tune with his character, that we are stuck like a broken record asking "why", time and again as Joseph goes from one inconsistency to the next in thought and action. Had Kellerman followed through with the book's initial premise and permitted Joseph to behave consistently with his character I believe it wouldn't have diminished the entertainment value of the book because the story's believability would have been maintained. The type of audience initially attracted to this book, would have thoroughly enjoyed reading along as Joseph solved, with intellect and cunning, a seemingly unsolvable quandary and didn’t resort to Hobbes-like violence.
I have not given up on Mr. Kellerman and will read some of his new or already written books with the hope that they present a unique premise with an equally unique resolution!
I received this book from the publisher, G.P. Putnam's Sons, for review.