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"Speak to the Token Man. Ask for Desiree.",
This review is from: Dermaphoria (Hardcover)
When he wakes up in a hospital jail surrounded by beeping machines and a determinedly friendly detective, Eric Ashworth remembers nothing. He recalls sensations, images, fireflies and a name, Desiree, but without any context. Later, somewhat on the mend, Eric is ensconced in the Hotel Firebird, Room 621, but, "Jail moves with me, an invisible box surrounding my every step with every tick of the clock." His paranoia accelerates, information temporarily buried in a damaged mind; he sees microprocessors in insects, "umbrella men" following his every move, yet is unable to resist the urges of a demanding brain for more, more, more.
His memory returns in snatches, between doses of drugs that bring him ever closer to the brink of fragmented recall. Eric Ashworth is an uber-chemist, able to recreate any formula, tweaking and adjusting, improving the quality of the high. Working for professionals willing to pay for his expertise, Eric demands a certain level of competence in his labs, only too aware that carelessness can erase his work in a fiery ball. Eric understands it all, manufacturing, R and D, distribution, sales and marketing. And he realizes "the best batch wouldn't go anywhere in the world without a good name". Hence, Diesel Blockers, Straight Eights, Road Dogs, Green Berets, Mad hatters and White Rabbits, an endless stream of top quality uppers and mood changers, eagerly consumed by a voracious public. His latest creation, Derma, or Skin, brings the user close to God, in raucous demand. Not a problem for Ashworth, the consummate chemist, a genius at refining the essence of the drug du jour in mass quantities.
The author's knowledge of pharmacological detail is impressive, the fine art of cooking, drugs as important in this novel as in his first excellent fiction, The Contortionist's Handbook. But Eric lacks the depth and passion of Clevenger's first protagonist, lost in a haze of drug-induced confusion that moves between fantasy and reality, mixing the two, characters real and imagined but without much substance beyond his imagination. Accurately detailed and written with the passion of a lit match poised to light a rising layer of ether, this world of phantoms carries its own harsh fate. The faceless men who people this lucrative market are expendable, but Eric is not, his unusual talent making him a marked man. Trapped in the cacophony of his own thoughts, Eric fuels the rush of memory with ever higher doses of Derma, accelerating a harsh awakening as fact separates from fiction. Faced with the inevitable results of his chemical euphoria, Eric's lucidity waxes and wanes, until both love and tragedy are revealed in equal measure, the breadth of his betrayal unbearable. Luan Gaines/ 2005.