With a cover that features a pixelated 1950s portrait of Zsa Zsa Gabor (a camp icon associated with Hungarian schtick, nine husbands, and that time she famously slapped a police officer’s face) and a title that contains a distant echo of Tama Janowitz’s novel The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group, Susan Swan’s latest work of fiction points toward something over the top – excoriating farce, perhaps, or the delirious satiric tour de force practised by the likes of Lynn Crosbie and Patrick deWitt. But, in this case, those who would judge a book by its cover should beware.
Making abundant reference to Jazz Age novels about the American Dream by writers such as Theodore Dreiser and F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Dead Celebrities Club is primarily narrated by a self-made, larger-than-life man done in by hubris and circumstances. Dale Paul, a.k.a. prisoner 199421-321, is a six-foot-six, “sixty-three-year-old man with a bad heart.” He is also a formerly high-rolling, deeply networked hedge fund manager accused of fraud to the tune of billions. Brooding in Essex, a minimum security institution previously used as athlete housing for the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York, Dale Paul recalls scenes from his past while also learning prison diplomacy and planning his next act (an in-house get-rich betting scheme involving celebrities whose deaths are expected imminently).
Yet when Swan’s narrator declaims, nearly two-thirds through his tale, “Everyone is self-interested, and nobody is more self-interested than I am,” the statement comes as a surprise. In the pantheon of real-life financial villains (those Belfort, Madoff, Cohen, and Milken types), Dale Paul barely registers. Although touched on, a scandalous or decadent account of his rise and fall isn’t on the guy’s mind. Instead, he tends to dwell on family, romance, and his boarding-school days in Toronto.
His angry son (a subplot of a few pages) calls Dale Paul “florid,” and part of the disconnect with the character results from Swan’s decision to make him impenetrable. The inmate regularly uses terms (“grotesque blovian,” “nugatory trifles,” “addled lager lout,” “a sadistic blusterer and a popinjay”) from other centuries. And his habit of notionally poetic phrasing – on sex, for instance: “How will you address that wild honey pot of thrills, the creamy mounds of breast waiting to be caressed, the mysterious thatched delta you are obliged to fondle as if its secrets are second nature to you?” – grows obfuscatory. He’s more often a barrage of arcane words than a figure whose inner workings we’re granted access to.
The baroque vocabulary suggests former newspaper mogul Conrad Black, who in 2011 served time for fraud and obstruction of justice as Florida inmate 18330-424. The allusion is evident, though if intended as literary evaluation, Swan’s portraiture suffers from being neither excoriating critique nor intriguing psychological profile.
While other plot elements appear (a handful of brief sections focus on Tim Nugent, Dale Paul’s boarding-school chum and the ghostwriter of his forthcoming memoir), they’re thin margins on the main narrative. Swan hints her core theme is the fallen man’s redemption, and in principle that impulse is a sound one. For that soul-saving to resonate, however, empathetic investment in the complexities of character is necessary. And that’s in short supply in the story Dale Paul opts to tell.