The best thing about "Like a Hole in the Head," the first novel from a young playwright named Jen Banbury, is the main character. In a world that's crammed with anomie, she has what it takes to be a contender when trouble comes looking for her. Banbury has what it takes, too -- she writes like a wonderfully feminized Dashiel Hammett, with enough literary sensibility and good humor to pop her cleanly out of the mystery genre.
Banbury's protagonist, Jill, is an underemployed bookstore employee in Los Angeles. Young, unambitious -- unlike everyone else she knows, she has zero interest in acting -- and often hungover, Jill is fed up with humanity. She seems almost pleased when she confesses, "I couldn't remember the last time I had sat across from someone in a restaurant." Banbury's tale comes to life when Jill is offered the chance to make some big money on a rare first edition of Jack London's "The Cruise of the Snark." Instead of buying it for her boss, she plans to keep the book and sell it to one of the other bookstore owners who frequent the shop. What begins as a simple business transaction quickly becomes a nightmare when a whole slew of (often violent) book lovers come gunning for her. In her own loner, pulp hero fashion, Jill does her best to fend them off.
Banbury has a good feel for her protagonist's growing paranoia. Jill trusts no one -- not her flaky boss, not her college buddy, from whom she borrows a motorcycle (and his girlfriend's gun), not the child actor-turned-used book dealer with whom she has a brief affair, not her co-worker with an even worse booze habit than her own. Only the reader knows the full truth about Jill's transaction and its strange, grim consequences. She's a classic unreliable narrator, spilling the most truth when she's drunk, or dreaming, or trying to lie to her persecutors. Better yet, she's armed with a sharp tongue and sarcastic wit, even in the middle of an intense interrogation. Picture Janeane Garofalo caught in a Quentin Tarantino film: "The hand jerked and soda hit me in the face again ... 'I GET THE POINT!' I screamed to wake myself up."
Banbury's biggest achievement here isn't just her ironic, updated spin on hard-boiled fiction -- it's that she really makes you care about Jill and her plight. That Jill is a treat to spend time with doesn't hurt, either. "That gun could do a lot of damage," she muses to herself near the close of the book. "They don't seem to do much damage in the movies. A thousand bullets and maybe one hits home. This was different. A genuine shock. I stood in the dark a second, listening to my heart. I put the barrel of the gun in my mouth. My teeth clicked against the metal. It tasted like chicken."