Mr. White's Confession

Charles Taylor reviews 'Mr. White's Confession' by Robert Clark

Published September 2, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Everything about "Mr. White's Confession" is in flux -- the story, the setting, even the author's style. What begins as an atmospheric hard-boiled crime yarn ends up as something much more mysterious and unsettling. Clark steadily builds up an all-but-overwhelming sense of dread, a certainty that the worst we fear will arrive on schedule -- only to pull the rug out from under us.

St. Paul, Minn., in 1939, the place and time the book opens, has a ghost-town feel. The characters are part of the crowds on the streets or riding the buses, at the movies or eating at the local White Castle; they could be the last people on earth. "Today passed uneventfully," one character writes in his journal, "although I varied my routine somewhat, leaving the house earlier than usual and walking down the Lawton Steps to catch the Grand Avenue streetcar instead of my regular route." The proprietor of a dime-a-dance hall talks about how times are getting better. It doesn't feel that way. As "Pennies from Heaven" did, "Mr. White's Confession" presents a world of shabby, middle-class gentility perched on top of awful secrets.

Someone is murdering St. Paul's dime-a-dance girls, and both evidence and instinct lead the police to Herbert White. An odd loner with a Humpty Dumpty build and a faulty memory (he can recall things that happened years before, but the recent past is a blur), Herbert spends hours on his journal and scrapbook, trying to record the events he knows will soon slip from his mind. He's also drawn to pretty women, writing fawning fan letters to his favorite starlet and photographing dance-hall girls in demure poses. Herbert's doughy politeness, his remove from the world, seems at first a cover for an overage virgin's boiling hostility. But as Herbert goes from born culprit to born patsy, even that transformation doesn't take the full measure of his character, the way his infuriating obstinacy, his inability to perceive more than what's in front of him, signifies a kind of decency and integrity, even though that failure prevents him from saving himself.

Clark's slowly unfolding irony is that each character shares something of Herbert's myopia, and they're even less able to save themselves. The dime-a-dance girls, the cops working the case, a teenage runaway who becomes both the wife and daughter one cop has lost -- all of them remain essentially isolated. And that realization, breaking like a slow wave across the length of the book, leaves a chill that persists.

At times, Clark's approach feels less unpredictable than unformed. He's using genre borrowings for a novel more fluid and resonant than genre conventions usually allow, and it's not a seamless blend. (His conscientiously descriptive prose occasionally seems too fancy for the material, an attempt to put on airs.) But the book's elusiveness pulls you in. The mystery of who killed the girls has a solution that's obvious early on; the mystery of where Clark's characters are headed has no easy solution, though their destinations seem obvious. The unexpected compassion he shows his characters is finally much more unsettling than the irreversible fates we're certain await them. Maybe that has something to do with their refusal to stay boxed up within a genre. By the end of "Mr. White's Confession," they've traveled awfully far, and awfully close.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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