Jul 12, 2011
A Thief, A Girl, A Moral
Something Missing: A Novel
by Matthew Dicks
Broadway Books © 2009
Matthew Dicks’s first novel begins with the careful machinations of a professional thief cataloging the contents of a person’s refrigerator: “A gallon of milk, long since expired, cold cuts, opened jars of jam, tomato sauce, a carton of eggs, and, in the door, what Martin had predicted: salad dressing.” After the first hundred pages, I felt like I was reliving the book The Boy Who Could Not Stop Washing. We quickly learn that the protagonist, Martin Railback, is an anti-social, neurotic sophisticated thief. He thinks nothing of taking a person's liquid plumber but agonizes over a dropped toothbrush in a toilet. Crazy guy that Martin Railback.
Martin has a cleanly strategic work week that includes breaking into the homes of at least a dozen homes a week stealing stuff. He stakes out the homes of upper middle class home dwellers in Connecticut who would make for good unsuspecting victims of his kleptomania. No single people. No children. No people with roomies. Only married couple without children. He systematically absconds objects people will least likely notice to go missing. Martin is no ordinary thief. For example, he has been stealing Liquid Plumber and Parmesan Peppercorn salad dressing from the Pearls for a decade, along with the occasional pearl necklace or bowl hidden in a dusty corner of the house. Martin goes through great pains to determine whether an item will go missing or not. I don't want to adumbrate his meticulous steps he undergoes to determine whether an item is steal-able or not. It is ammusingly exhausting and Dicks does a fine job of bringing us into Martin's world.
The odd thing about Martin is that he not only steals from people; he is a first class creeper. He notices his clients’ (the name he gives his victims) idiosyncrasies, the kinds of toothbrushes they use, whether or not they lift the toilet seat when they go to the bathroom, even the contents of their journals, e-mails, and grocery lists. Martin is the ultimate voyeur, which makes him creepy in most people’s estimation. Dicks attempts to make him likable, even adorable at times. I found myself hoping he would not get caught as a thief when in one scene he is trapped inside a client’s home when they arrive before he can make an exit.
The novel reads at a quick pace. The first quarter of the book introduces you to Martin’s burglar lifestyle and gives background to how he became the kind of person he is. We quickly learn his anti-social habits. He has a crush on the waitress at the diner he frequents for breakfast but he never asks her out on a date. He has one true friend, Jeff, who does not know of his daily break-ins into people’s homes. He lives in his deceased mother’s house where he stores the objects he steals behind refrigerator panels and inside sofas. He doubles on Ebay as a chic Northeastern woman who has a penchant for handbags. In one of the novel’s funnier moments, we learn how Martin uses Ebay to sell off his client’s unmissable stuff.
Right away we are led to believe that Martin is not an ordinary thief. I did not find myself hating him for his thievery simply because he seemed to steal only out of a sense of odd moral principles. He never stole items from his clients that they would miss. In this regard the novel seems to be a criticism of middle class America. Martin’s clients are people who work many hours a week, have amassed a large amount of cash, buy plenty of things, but do not have the time to enjoy what they buy. The Steinway piano that sits in the living room unplayed without an open music book, or the wood burning stove that no one uses, or the extra set of diamond ear rings that go unnoticed. The novel appears to be saying that Martin steals out of a high moral standard. As if his thievery suggests the hypocrisy of a middle class that buys stuff that could be used to support others (and they would not notice the loss). But Dicks never brings the novel to moral indictment of the upper middle class. We only know that Martin does not care for dogs, the very rich (because they do notice when their stuff goes missing), and general disarray. In fact instead of moral disdain, Martin acquires a bizarre intimacy with his clients even though he has never met them.
The novel encourages us to root Martin on in his search for intimacy and love. Not finding the love of his life with the diner gal, Martin seems destined to find love with a client, or at least we are led to think so. I won't spoil the plot but suffice it to say this book enters boy meets girl territory. Why begin a novel that promises to be a critical rapprochement with American middle class values with the formula of a brazen romance. I wanted more class struggle and less amour between burglaries.
the best scenes are the voyeur moments Martin has with his clients. He seems more at ease with the migh-have been moments in his life than real in your face person-to-person encounters. Dicks wants his Martin Railback to be both a quriky neurotic and a lovable boy next door. I don't completely buy it. In perhaps the most moving passage from the novel, Martin overhears a client speak of the sadness she feels of never having received a single rose from her husband. Martin crafts an anonymous letter to the husband suggesting he buy his wife a rose tomorrow. At this point the novel shifts in timbre from film noir espionage to the reverse of Gyges’s Ring. Instead of doing the immoral act when no one is looking. Martin turns out to be the hero who does the good despite the fact that he breaks the law for his day job. I thought the novel presented the character of Martin as too glib and neatly OCD. It never seemed to me that Martin ever questioned the rightness or wrongness of things in a searching, palpable way. His neuroticisms easily aroused him to make a quick buck from his svelte thieving as well as create delusions about his relationship to his clients.
The novel kept me in its quasi-ethical grip until about three quarters through. By the last hundred or so pages I felt the author had become too self-aggrandizing and his character appeared to don hero wings without sufficiently revealing what made him tick. The book ends too neatly on the premise of another book to follow.
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