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Spotlight on: Ronald Damien Malfi
Ronald Damien Malfi, The Fall of Never
Aspiring documentarian Kelly Rich comes home late one night to a message from her estranged family: her sister, Becky, was nearly killed in the forest near their house and Kelly must come home at once to her hometown of Spires in upstate New York. This leaves Josh Cavey, her videographer and the closest thing she has to a friend, in a fix when he finds their latest documentary subject, Nellie Worthridge, an elderly paraplegic, barely breathing on the floor of her apartment.
In the hospital, Nellie begins saying and doing very strange things like talking about how "we almost killed that fucking dog" and breaking all of the tines save one from plastic forks. She really upsets her attending physician, Carlos Mendes, when she mentions that his unborn baby is not going to make it to term. And, at her family home, Kelly feels like she is going crazy. She is having strange "memories" of her years in the asylum her parents put her in at 15 (the same age her sister is now), and this only increases her fear.
How author Ronald Damien Malfi ties Nellie's odd behaviors to Kelly's visit to Spires results in the most effective chiller I've read in years. The Fall of Never gave me the first genuine reading-induced goosebumps I've gotten since my first time through Ray Bradbury's "The October Game," and it is only his second novel.
The Fall of Never faithfully follows the expected route of the American gothic subgenre, yet it doesn't feel derivative, just familiar. Malfi informs his story with references from Shakespeare, Poe, even Puzo (watch out for those bags of oranges), and the cover illustration by Mike Bohatch gets the reader into the proper mood.
Malfi truly knows his characters, so much so that I began to think I did, too. The dialogue is so personal, and each character has such a clear and distinctive voice, that it is easy to tell who is speaking just from their words. His female characters are especially well drawn and are the most integral to the plot, leaving the male characters like Josh and Carlos to simply respond to the actions of the women.
The Fall of Never is about many things, but most of all it is about power: the power of fear and loneliness, of the mind and imagination, and the extreme result that comes from the combination of all four. Given the depth of his plot, I was concerned that any ending Malfi came up with would fail to meet the heights of what preceded it. But he managed to completely surprise me with a stunning conclusion that fits all the pieces together in a fully satisfying way and may even break new ground -- I know I've never read anything like it before. Despite its generic origins, the author does not limit himself and therefore comes up with a novel that feels completely original and definitely makes Ronald Damien Malfi someone to watch out for in the future.
Ronald Damien Malfi, The Nature of Monsters
"I'll bet Jesus drank like a goddamn Irish sailor," Sweeny said. "I'll bet He turned water into wine and kelp into marijuana and frigging matzos into high-octane cocaine.... I'll bet He called everyone around the table during the Last Supper and showed them how to turn their lousy cod platters into strips of veal and venison and fat cuts of juicy sirloin.... Jesus Hector Christ can throw a hell of a party." -- from The Nature of Monsters
Author Ronald Damien Malfi has chosen to possibly interrupt his rising-star status in speculative fiction, and follow his acclaimed novels The Space Between (science fiction) and The Fall of Never (gothic horror) with a leap in another direction entirely: the classicist literary fiction of The Nature of Monsters. Turns out it was a solid decision, because this is one terrific book.
Robert Crofton moved from his home state of Kentucky to experience the big-city life of Baltimore, write a book, and rekindle his childhood friendship with Rory Van Holt; "Roaring" Rory is now an up-and-coming boxer with a terrific future ahead of him. Robert soon gets swept up into Rory's Algonquin Round Table–style group of rich and powerful (and blithely cruel) friends.
The only other person Robert knows in town is his often-obnoxious cousin Nigel Sweeny, and when Sweeny falls in love with Rory's fiancée, Donna Taylor, it threatens to throw off Robert's already-precarious balance and send his life into a tailspin. It's a situation that can only end in tragedy.
The boxing subplot recalls books and films from the first half of the twentieth century (Robert composes on an Olympia manual typewriter), but Malfi approaches his characters with a modern sensibility (Rory carries a tiny cell phone). Also, their relationship mirrors that of Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, all of which serves to give The Nature of Monsters a timeless feel, though it is undisputably a modern novel. It is the story of the crossing of the haves and the have-nots, of the consequences of selfish decisions, of the actions of people placed in uncomfortable situations against their will, and especially of weak men and the women who control them (although neither is really aware of it), with a surprising finish that recasts all that came before.
I should also mention that this book is the inaugural publication of 5 Story Walkup, a burgeoning publisher that has set itself apart by not doing so obviously. Their tagline, "We publish [ ________________ ] stories," suggests they don't want to limit themselves to anything but the best, in whatever guise it presents itself. Kudos to them for rescuing The Nature of Monsters from its author's file drawer (where it sat for years because, he didn't know how to market a story with no genre) and giving it a chance it might not have had otherwise.
I look forward both to their next choice and to the author's next book. Ronald Damien Malfi has seen the monsters, and they are us.
Ronald Damien Malfi, Via Dolorosa
"Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger, he knew. But he also knew that whatever doesn't kill you sometimes only maims you and weakens you and makes you angrier and colder than you ever thought possible. Not for the first time, he acknowledged that, sometimes, it was probably better just to have it kill you." -- from Via Dolorosa
Nick D'Nofrio was a lieutenant in the Iraq war, where he saved the life of one of his men. Now he's a newly married man, paying for his honeymoon at a resort hotel on Hilton Head Island by painting a mural on their wall. But he can't get away from his past, especially not with the father of the man wholse life Nick saved working as the hotel's bell captain (he got him the painting gig), and his injured right hand acting up whenever he tries to do any painting.
Nick is on a downward spiral, and he won't let his wife be a support -- choosing instead to spend inordinate amounts of time in the company of a Spanish photographer who only wants details on his war experiences (and any photos he has or knows about) -- shaking up his marriage at a time when what he most needs is stability.
Author Ronald Damien Malfi returns to Raw Dog Screaming Press (the publishers of his highly acclaimed modern gothic novel The Fall of Never, their inaugural release) with Via Dolorosa, an entirely different kind of horror story: a misguided war's effects on one of its participants. Malfi's forte is in his examination of the darkness of humanity, the horrors that we inflict upon each other, most often without intending to. The Fall of Never was about the negative effects of family, while The Nature of Monsters focused on how much we'll take from the people we believe are our friends.
Now, with Via Dolorosa, Malfi turns his keen eye on marriage and how one person's emotional baggage can sour the experience for both parties. The title (it translates into "The Way of Sorrow") lets the reader know what is ahead: this is a dark, sad, and depressing novel, but it retains a modicum of hope through Nick's constant struggle for escape, in whatever form it avails itself. Whether through the guise of a Spanish photographer or in the shadows of the pointedly named Club Potemkin, or even just at the bottom of a bottle of Red Truck, Nick's continual pursuit of a way out rescues his story from utter bleakness. The often dreamlike quality of the prose suits this novel told from the perspective of a troubled protagonist who spends the majority of his time deep inside his own head.
Via Dolorosa is Malfi's best book yet. It is his most insightful and his most personal work to date. And with it, he marks a significant step forward on the road to being not only an author that people want to read, but also one whom other writers seek to emulate.
(Email me and let me know what you think.)