Macmillan New Writing Watch
Low Life, by Ryan David Jahn
One of the unexpected pleasures of being part of Macmillan New Writing is seeing other writers on the imprint go on to achieve critical and commercial success. Recently Ann Weisgarber, LC Tyler and Brian McGilloway have all been nominated for major prizes.
Ryan David Jahn has now, with his second novel, Low Life, been assimilated into the mainstream Macmillan imprint. I always look forward to MNWers' crime novels (my former editor Will Atkins is now head honcho for Macmillan crime acquisitions, such is his ability to pick winners), and Low Life does not disappoint.
When Simon Johnson is attacked in his crummy LA apartment, he knows he must defend himself or die. Turning on the lights after the scuffle, Simon realises two things: one, he has killed his attacker; two, the resemblance of the man to himself is uncanny.Over the coming days, Simon’s lonely life will spiral out of control. With his pet goldfish Francine in tow, he embarks on a gripping existential investigation, into his own murky past, and that of Jeremy Shackleford, the (apparently) happily married math teacher whose body is now lying in Simon’s bathtub under forty gallons of ice.But Simon has a plan. Gradually, he begins to assume the dead man’s identity, fooling Shackleford’s colleagues, and even his beautiful wife. However, when mysterious messages appear on the walls around Simon’s apartment, he realises that losing his old self will be more difficult than he’d imagined. Everything points to a long forgotten date the previous spring, when his life and Shackleford’s first collided. As the contradictions mount, and the ice begins to melt, the events of the past year will resolve themselves in the most catastrophic way.Combining gritty noir, psychological drama and dazzling plotting, Low Life is a shocking novel that announces Jahn as a brilliant new voice of modern America.
So goes the blurb, of which I am automatically wary. The phrase "gripping existential investigation" invites immediate scepticism, and yet this is exactly what the novel proves to be. Jahn builds on his exceptional ability--showcased in his debut Acts of Violence--to nail urban American life in the accretion of telling detail by adding a plot of clockwork precision: few writers would have the audacity to combine hidden quantum physics with a seamy naturalism, and fewer still would be able to pull it off. The crime field is a crowded one, but with Low Life, Ryan David Jahn proves he is working in its upper reaches.