Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 272 pages, $26
The only niche for Zak Webster is in a quiet store specializing in maps. He is a map nerd and nothing exciting happens to him except when his boss, Ray McKinley, drops by. Ray is an entrepreneur, land developer, and quick to find a buck. He is not a map guy but seems to understand more about the subject than his brash and assertive personality might initially indicate. He mostly leaves Zak alone, which suits Zak just fine.
One day a woman comes to the map store. She is obviously homeless and disoriented. When she drops her velvet coat, Zak sees — aside from the fact that she is naked — a bunch of scribbles on her back, a chaotic tattoo. A passerby, Marilyn Driscoll, sees their encounter and also sees the tattoo. Suddenly a man in a Cadillac appears, whisks the woman away, then later returns to threaten and beat Zak (you have seen naw-zhing…naw-zhing).
Billy Moore is the menacing man, and he has been hired by a sociopathic hitman, Wrobleski, to pick up women with similar tattoos on their backs. Wrobleski is also a map nerd but does not share Zak’s shy and awkward disposition. It appears that he would like to solve the mystery of what he presumes are maps on the women’s backs.
Zak separately figures out that it was a map he saw tattooed on the homeless woman’s back. With Marilyn’s help, they toodle around town doing their amateur detective thing. Nobody ever thinks of calling the police, but Geoff Nicholson does hint at corruption in the government of the decaying, unnamed city where the characters live, so maybe they were worried about getting into hotter water.
One of the best characters is Billy Moore’s 12-year-old daughter, Carla. She’s precocious and understands her father better than he would like to admit. She and her father live in separate trailers on the parking lot Billy owns. Billy is trying his best to convince the powers-that-be that he is qualified to take care of his daughter. As a result of trying to provide for her, he becomes embroiled in the escalating events engineered by Wrobleski.
The tone of the book is dreamlike and slyly humorous. The chapters have titles. For example, the one about Ray is entitled, “Ray of Light.”
Maps should show us where we have been or where we are going, but maps, as the characters note, exist in all kinds of forms. Zak says, “Every map has its use…The problem may be working out what that use is. And it may be even harder to work out who’s the intended user.”