Written with a rich and cool-eyed empathy for its two central characters, this is one of those books that lays down its own rules for story-telling and carries the same unwavering style from first sentence to last.
Untouchable is a father-son story about loss, empathy, love, denial, disaffection, homes, families, and reputations. Set in Los Angeles prior to Y2K, the story features David Darby, a specialist in cleaning up rooms after messy deaths, and his son, The Kid. The Kid is Whitley and he has chosen not to speak as a way to manage and deal with the sudden death of his mother, and David’s wife, Lucy.
If you read no further in this review, just know that both portraits of Darby and The Kid—Untouchable is told with an alternating point of view—are deeply felt and richly told. Also know that Untouchable is rife with heartache (as well as moments of utter joy). Its sadness permeates from the pores of two very alive human beings working, on their own terms, to make their way given the grim world they face and the many puzzling questions with which they grapple.
Darby can’t shake the feeling that there is some “unfinished detail” after each job is complete. He believes he’s overlooked “a telltale sign that would betray the secret of what had happened…”
The Kid has channeled his thoughts and energies into producing a homemade comic book, Extraordinary Adventures, with his friend Matthew Crump. The star of The Kid’s comic books is Smooshie Smith, Talk Show Host of the Future, because he had a time machine and he could interview “cowboys in the Western stories, soldiers in the war stories, aliens in the outer-space stories.”
The Kid has an active, free-flowing imagination and a rich interior life, but he resists any temptation to speak, even when he’s being bullied and taunted at school, where he considers himself a “magnet for trouble.” The Kid is afraid the stories at school are true—that he has bad body odor and his breath stinks. He has convinced himself that his mother left home and his dad is lying about her death. Maybe she just left because he made his mother “sick and sad.”
The Kid worries about everything, including the end of the universe given all the brooding over Y2K. Both Darby and The Kid have constructed intricate, immense coping mechanisms. Darby starts to lose his grip on reality.
Reality, in fact, is the issue. Stories, lies, self-delusion, faith, hope, trust and basic human compassion all play a role in Untouchable. This is a rich stew of ideas and, frankly, I found The Kid one of the most compelling 11-year-olds I’ve ever met on the page. The Kid has a wise old head with an imagination that both causes him problems and gives him a path toward the light.
“The trick of the job is to forget what had happened,” explains Darby as he approaches a particularly awful crime scene mess.
Forgetting helps. So does a flipping the switch on a fogger to wipe out the smell. There are many ways to blunt the senses or stop using them altogether. Dark openings play a big role Untouchable, so does uncertainty, not knowing, not being able to peer around the next corner. Cleaning also plays a big role–including one chilling request for a “quick” second cleaning of a motel room and a spunky dog plucked from mucky, utter misery.
Untouchable is a powerful piece of grim, gritty, heartfelt fiction. I’ve never read a book like it–and that’s a good thing.