Author: Tom Piccirilli
Publisher: Crossroad Press
Tom Piccirilli Official Site
Review Author: Chris Hallock
Like the chameleon altering its paint job to deal with stress or to fool predators, humans are equipped with their own coping camouflage. Each of us is capable of adapting to most reasonable situations by simply adjusting our personality to suit the moment. It's a survival technique that allows us to shape ourselves in response to a variety of people and environments. But what if we had the ability to summon from within a completely disparate personality to deal with a seemingly insurmountable challenge or trauma? Say it was a challenge we’d normally be ill-equipped or even totally incapable of tackling. Yet, this deep-seeded personality, almost an alter-ego, somehow possessed all the skill to deal with it swiftly and effectively.
This is the concept explored by Tom Piccirilli (Shadow Season, The Night Class) in his latest novel Nightjack, a sort of film noir influenced crime thriller by way of some mind-bending Matt Ruff or Philip K. Dick notions of multiple personality, the effects of mind altering drugs, and how those factors might help or hinder you in battling would-be assassins. Piccirilli has crafted a page turner that satisfies those looking for a little cerebral workout with their violent action. At a very trim 188 pages, there is never a dull moment, but there is also enough depth to keep one intellectually engaged.
William Pacella is a patient at the Garden Falls Psychiatric Facility in New York. His memory is in tatters due to the unorthodox treatments and drugs he's received under the care of Dr. Maureen Brandt. He suffers from multiple personality disorder, ending up in the hospital on his own accord, though he has no recollection of admitting himself. He receives flashes of memory revealing that his wife, Jane, was killed in a fire, possibly murdered by a gang of thugs under the direction of crime boss Joe Ganucci. Now driven by revenge, further complications arise when Pacella discovers he houses numerous personalities, referred to on occasion as “alternatives”. The more volatile alternatives may be responsible for his recent violent outbursts in the hospital. His "split" is theorized to be caused by the extreme stress and grief of witnessing his wife's death. Everything is exacerbated by the alternative’s desire for autonomy and Pacella’s own personal vendetta.
The problem faced by our protagonist is that while he does harbor a number of useful split personalities, he doesn't have much control once one has been activated. In fact, the bulk of the narrative focuses more on Pace, one of Pacella's more dominant personalities. Pace’s role is akin to something like a custodian of Pacella’s body while Pacella himself has retreated somewhere within. Pacella regresses to an almost dream state of flashbacks and memories when a personality is called up, becoming disassociated and depersonalized while the alternative takes over. Pace, on the other hand, seems to act as caretaker, an “In-Between Man”, keeping the more dangerous ones at bay and generally keeping things from crashing. He somehow has the unique ability to communicate with the alternates, cooperating with the more amiable to piece together the puzzle. Unfortunately, when the full power of an alternative is unleashed, Pace/Pacella has little power to stop the machine in motion. They are often unaware a change has taken place until presented with evidence of the aftermath. In those moments of fugue, the personalities have a tendency to deal in sudden violence or worse. The biggest offender is Jack, also known as "Nightjack", a bloodthirsty and impetuous killer with a passion for knives. Keeping Jack under control has proven the most difficult task for Pace, and one getting increasingly more difficult.
With hesitation on the part of Dr. Brandt, we find Pacella about to be released from her care to live a "normal" life on the outside. The hospital has a home and job lined up for him at a nearby fish cannery. Boredom, loneliness, television, and strict prohibitions are his only forseeable future. That is until he and Dr. Brandt are taken by a group of former Garden Falls patients. They have plans for Pace, and hope he can shed light on harassment from Alexander Kaltzas, a vengeful shipping tycoon. Kaltzas believes the group is responsible for the brutal rape of his daughter Cassandra while she, too, was a patient at the hospital. The group look toward Pace as leader or father figure to guide them. They make it no secret that they wish to utilize Jack and a number of Pace's other personalities to survive the ordeal. Once a chain of events are set in motion, they travel together to Greece for a confrontation with the mysterious and deadly Kaltzas.
It would be impossible for me to spell out much more in a simple synopsis, and I don't want to give much more away than I have already. The story gets increasingly layered and complex as we are introduced to a myriad of characters, most of whom also have multiple personalities. There's the intelligent and ruthless Hayden; Pia, who uses her sexual allure like a spider trapping its prey; and Faust, the spiritual one with the angels Rimmen and Sariel balancing on his shoulders. Dr. Brandt may be harboring her own secret agenda. Then there is the cast of Pacella's personalities, including the psychotic Jack, Sam the resourceful private dick, and Irish boxer Jimmy Boyd, to name but a few. Fortunately, each character is quite distinct, and it never feels frustrating to keep up with them all.
I enjoyed Nightjack quite a bit. It’s a tightly wound, perfectly paced, and fascinating story that explores the effects of trauma and how it can be channeled into something constructive, destructive, or both. Piccirilli never lets things get confusing in terms of timelines. When he jumps from reality to memory flashbacks, it is very clear where we are in the moment. The same can be said for alternating between the personalities of each character. It would have been very easy to let the story get bogged down by these frequent changes, but Piccirilli allows us to adapt in our own way to the ever tightening evolution of the book. What at first appears as a straightforward narrative about sanity vs. insanity soon turns into a treatise on the power and fragility of the mind.