The suspense thriller "Toyer," playwright Gardner McKay's debut novel, is one of those books that is so informed by the movies -- the readily identifiable "types" of its characters, its cinematic structure, its lurid violence and graphic sex, the scenes and gestures so familiar from our moviegoing that they could carry Hollywood trademarks -- that you can't help but cast it as you go.
For starters, there's Peter Matson, aka Toyer (Vince Vaughn, Jason Patric, Luke Perry), a part-time roofer and wannabe actor who has a hobby worse than serial killing. Instead of murdering his comely young female victims, he drugs them and then neatly, meticulously, stabs them at the base of the skull, destroying the higher brain functions and leaving them in an irreparable comalike vegetative state. Caring for Toyer's victims is the book's troubled heroine, Dr. Maude Garance (Kristin Scott Thomas, Sharon Stone, Madeleine Stowe), a beautiful neuropsychologist who's fiercely dedicated to her work. Toyer's handiwork is exerting a nasty toll on Maude; she's not only drinking enough gin to drop a posse of Hamptons socialites in its tracks, but she's also hearing voices telling her to find Toyer and kill him.
There's also Sara Smith (Gwyneth Paltrow, Anne Heche, Julia Roberts), a youngish newspaper reporter hot on the Toyer story, and Jim O'Land (Campbell Scott, John Cusack, George Clooney), Sara's been-there-done-that editor who'll do just about anything to keep the wildly popular Toyer story on his front page. Rounding out the primary characters is Telen (Neve Campbell, Claire Danes, Heather Graham) -- wannabe actor, budding playwright and Toyer's girlfriend -- who wonders why her beau gets so freaky sometimes.
McKay, of course, doesn't mention the movies as the driving force behind his handsome nutcase, but he goes out of his way in an attempt to root Toyer in real life. Toyer is "a reservoir of all those who have preceded him," he writes in the book's portentous preface. "Of Ted Bundy, because he has the charisma of a would-be congressman. The Nightstalker, as a beautiful Satan. The steadfast Hillside Strangler, with his plodding self-expressionism. The pathetic Son of Sam who took orders from a dog's voice. The misguided Zodiac." Sure enough, Toyer is young, good-looking, charismatic, charming, confused, damaged and lethal. The longer we're around him, though, the more his contours strike us as baldly cinematic rather than literary, as when he dons a black leather jacket and rides off on his Harley-Davidson to claim his final victim -- call him psycho-rebel with a diabolical cause.
One of McKay's stylistic quirks is the frequent insertion of snippets of interior monologue, set off with italics, that serve as additional morsels of characterization. The coalescing of these bits, along with action and dialogue, into full-fledged characters is a nice trick, to a point; after that point, what we end up with is too much plodding over-characterization, when what we really want is to be carried away on a full-speed-ahead plot with characters we already know well enough. The pace of "Toyer," as a result, is wildly uneven throughout its three sections: acceptably steady in the first part ("The Beginning"), torturous in the second ("The Middle"), enjoyably galloping in the third ("The End"). Which was why, in addition to casting the book, I also found myself playing editor while I read, snipping here, tightening there -- not exactly an exercise conducive to the enjoyment of a suspense thriller.
This playwright's obsession with character isn't the only distraction in "Toyer." While some characters are described to the point of bursting, others are introduced only to languish, or disappear altogether. McKay knows dialogue, but his attempts at mimicking newspaper writing are uniformly horrendous. The trauma that supposedly triggered Toyer's dangerous instability doesn't seem the type to make a smartass villain out of him, one who leaves a handprint at the scene of his crimes and is so media-savvy that he's struck a deal in mid-spree to write a book detailing his foul deeds. And the juicy thematic possibilities of a psychopath loose in the city of dreams and illusions are left largely unexplored; Toyer could be a roofer/actor anywhere, and McKay's bits of Los Angeles detail merely pile up like a heap of discarded tires.
The German word teuer (pronounced "toyer") means "expensive" or "dear." Like Toyer's very expensive process of ridding himself of his demons, the effort necessary for a reader to reach the book's entertaining climax may prove too dear. Still, though, I'm convinced that a dazzling screenplay lurks just below the surface of "Toyer," waiting to be extracted. I can't wait to see the movie.