Seymour Shubin’s WITNESS TO MYSELF is not the typical fare usually found beneath the lurid cover of a Hard Case Crime paperback. For one thing, the protagonist is a decent fellow, unlike the usual noir lead who, at his most charitable, pitches a fifth of whiskey at his victim’s head as a peace offering of anesthetic for broken fingers.
Alan Benning is a fairly normal guy who’s tried to outlive his guilt and fear over a desperate act when he was fifteen years-old. From that sunny beach and unconscious young girl, he raced back to his parents’ RV and they left town. By the age of thirty, he’s succeeded in the big city, but he still doesn’t feel free. In fact, fear of his dormant brutality has solidified, and the years have only made him more isolated, careful, and romantically nervous. After landing a new job as a lawyer for a philanthropic foundation and meeting a quirky new girlfriend who relaxes him, perhaps another person could focus on the good he might accomplish by looking forward. Alan remains haunted by unanswered questions about what he’s done.
Seeking information about the past, his creeping paranoia creates self-conscious, strange behavior that draws attention with dangerous results. His shame and panic as he’s unraveling are tangible. His cousin, Colin, more like a big brother when they were young, has since become a true crime writer, Shubin’s own profession of many years. Colin could easily answer Alan’s questions, but he’d ferret out the truth of his cousin’s secret misdeed, currently misattributed to a serially confessing convict. Add to the mix a grieving father and retired detective who revisits unsolved mysteries. Mack McKinney’s interest in the forgotten tragedy refreshes the public memory in startling ways. Meanwhile, Alan’s publicity-hungry boss begins to notice his reticence toward the media, and his burgeoning relationship with girlfriend Anna is strained by his feelings of unworthiness. There’s an especially wonderful late character, Roy Bruster, a surprising and ironic threat to Alan who seems never to rationalize or defend himself, but simply to keep pursuing his self-destruction.
Throughout, this quick story is elegantly written and tight. The pages absolutely fly, and any of the characters are complex enough to serve as counterbalance to Alan, however, those interactions were often brief and uneventful. I’d have preferred that Colin’s involvement eventually become integral, more than as alternate narrator. I’d have liked to have understood Anna’s own, unexplained sexual diffidence. As volatile as the many external conflicts promised to be, none was allowed to really penetrate Alan’s cocoon of preoccupied self-loathing. Once the possibilities for meaningful collisions evaporate, it is Alan’s journey alone. He is the plot’s primary actor, and the totality retains the somewhat morose quality he’s evolved to protect the world from himself. Even at the moment of his most violent action on his own behalf, I never really feared he’d been corrupted beyond his own self-concept. Consequences play out, but Alan ends mostly as he began, a kind man convinced he’s irredeemably evil.
While I found WITNESS TO MYSELF both believable and heartbreaking, the doggedness of Alan’s perception mutes the dramatic snap of the climax, a bit of a disappointment after the gasping vibrancy of reliving his life’s worst day. If the language and attitudes occasionally seem dated despite the cell phones and laptops, as much as anything, they reflect Alan’s inescapable paralysis in time. It is always that summer day, and he is always a monster