The Rapist is an excellent title for Les Edgerton’s wonderful and terrifying novella, but don’t expect a simple and lurid crime tale. Truman Ferris Pinter is no ordinary criminal.
We discover him on death row during his last hours before his execution for rape and murder. His voice has the tone of an ersatz Old Testament prophet, and he describes himself as “Perfidy. . .Liar, Blasphemer, Defiler of Truth, Black-tongued.” Indeed, perhaps the whole first half of the book has a 19th Century stilt to it, like something out of Hawthorne or Poe. That voice is important for two reasons. First, it establishes our narrator/protagonist as someone with intellectual pretensions, if not the credentials to back them up. Second, it puts a storyteller’s distance between him and the events he describes and thus establishes an illusion of objectivity. Consequently, as we read his description of the crime and the events leading to and away from it, we’re inclined to accept his version. The moreso because he goes into graphic detail without apparently omitting even facts that put a guilty and ugly light on his role in the affair.
Ah, but then return to those opening lines and beware. Edgerton has given us the most masterful unreliable narrator I have ever read. For me, it was not until Pinter’s recounting of a conversation with the warden of his prison about halfway through the book that I realized that his purported declaration of guilt is far from the whole story. Other clues follow thereafter, but his initial description of his act is utterly convincing, to the point where he “confesses” not only his own guilt, but offers a rationale for it.He justifies what he did by declaring that it is what in legal circles would be described as an act, not wrong in and of itself, but wrong only in terms of the law. Sort of like jaywalking or speeding. His logic is twisted, but nicely argued in its own psychopathic way.
So much for the crime itself, which would make a well-told tale if it stopped there, but Edgerton adds another level or three that carries The Rapist from the realm of the merely excellent to that of the stellar. While he tells his story, Pinter (And it’s no accident he shares a name with the playwright famous for his “comedies of menace.”) prepares for life after his execution, and his preparations include revenge on his jailers and on society as a whole as well as a try at immortality. During these ruminations, we’re treated to meetings with a being who appears as an old man, someone who exists simultaneously everywhere in the space-time continuum and who seems to offer Truman counsel regarding his past, present and future. Each meeting, however, creates more confusion until Pinter becomes as baffled about his past as about his future. It is during these sessions that we soar into the ethereal territory of writers like Camus and Dante, or that of films like The Seventh Seal–and I don’t use those comparisons lightly. We believe that we, along with Pinter, may be face-to-face with God or with Death. And judgement day is terrifying. Even if we’re not the rapist, we’re all trying to hide something. Edgerton seems to suggest that it’s no use, that we’re all the unreliable narrators of our own lives, all defilers of truth who must pay somehow, somewhen. Not a pleasant notion, but when you finish The Rapist, you’ll feel as if there’s a truth in it you can’t avoid, no matter how much you’d love to.