For readers whose acquaintance with Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Strangers on a Train) is only surface deep, Tyler's Last (Outpost19, 2015) by David Winner will be something of a shock. The frequent movie adaptations of her work make her a recognizable figure, yet leave a comfortable distance between the viewer and the author herself—up close, as we see her in this book, she is something else altogether, more intimate and intense, misanthropic and violent. The discomfort and unease palpable in the films are amplified here, and, as in her work, she makes disquieting if commanding company.
Winner never explicitly identifies his main character as Highsmith, but his "old lady" author is unmistakable, just as the titular Tyler can be no one other than good old Tom Ripley. The book is structured on two parallel tracks, as the old lady moves with a clumsy bloodiness toward her final curtain while simultaneously trying to write the last chapters of a final book concluding her fictional creation Tyler’s misadventures. Winner seizes on the many reports of Highsmith's misanthropy to lead them both to fittingly bleak finales. Indeed, their unpleasant demeanor marks this as a novel where a major motivation to read further is looking forward to the death of the major characters. The pleasure of the novel lies in knowing that whatever havoc they wreak in the interim, they cannot escape their deaths, while much of the suspense lies in whether the old lady can finish writing the story of Tyler before she herself expires. True to form with Highsmith's literary oeuvre, obsession drives both the writer and her creation.
On the old lady’s part, it is a fixation on a former lover who seduced her only to quickly drop the romance; for Tyler, it is the return of his first victim Cal, who earned his purported fiery end by rejecting Tyler’s advances. Both have committed the paramount crime of sexual humiliation, and the effort to mete out suitable retribution drives our anti-heroes to ludicrous extremes no less fatal for being ridiculous. Age has taken a humbling toll on the formerly dashing Tyler and the old lady directing him. Efforts to physically subdue others fail miserably for the old lady, while Tyler finds himself muddy, sweating, and otherwise embarrassed on his journey. Even when Tyler and the old lady writer both have some measures of success, it is accomplished amidst indignity. Incontinence and biliousness plagues the old lady, who pushes forward to complete the kidnapping and possible murder of her former lover by dint of strategic tongue-lashings of her hirelings. Highsmith's prejudice emerges in her attitude toward these employees, all emigrants to Europe, and in Tyler's worldview too there are uncomfortable racial overtones. His main triumph comes in subduing an 'oriental' nephew of his first victim, barely a pre-teen, and forcing him, for wholly illogical reasons, to go after Cal in Africa. Paranoid to a fault, Tyler has gone to his house in a search for Cal, knocked out Cal’s brother, and forced the boy, in shock, to go out on the lam with him rather than leave the boy as a potential ‘liability’—rejecting any simple solution, he chooses instead to drag the boy across another continent. Whether Winner’s Highsmith stand-in plots this because she can’t stand to leave Tyler without at least some marginal triumph, or whether the anti-climatic nature of his minor victory here is merely meant to underline his reduced and bathetic state, Tyler’s minor conquest in pulling off the kidnapping does nothing to stave off his ultimate demise.
But then, salvation was never in the offing for either the old lady or Tyler, as they shun the moral high road with a passion. What drives them is a single-minded need to impose their will on others, to ‘win,' whatever the cost. Other people exist for them insofar as they aid or obstruct these ends; for Winner’s Highsmithian author, the only person she cares to be close with is none other than Tyler, who has the great virtue of being an extension of herself. The novel’s conceit is formally ingenious in this regard, and Tyler and his creator carry the torches for their fictional and real counterparts in convincing fashion. The only false note lies in the book's action being set in the lead-up to 9/11, with the final act taking place after the towers have fallen off-screen. As each new chapter in the old lady and Tyler's saga is conspicuously dated, it is impossible to avoid anticipating the event. The distraction adds an unnecessary and unexplained layer to the story, already complex enough on its own. The faint backdrop of the attacks only muddies the thrust of the novel, which is otherwise a fascinating journey into the unsavory, dingy aspects of crime and psyche. There’s no glamor here: Tyler and the old lady are admirable only for their bloody-minded determination and blithe disregard for everything but their own needs and egos, and when the old lady releases Tyler from his trials and breathes her own last, it is a relief to be spared their presence. Yet it is clear that Highsmith's unique voice, calculating and vengeful and yet pitiful too, continues to fascinate and intrigue long after her death. While it's far from a admirable outlook, it has an undeniable force, and a certain stripped-bare aspect that is refreshing--there is no pretense of nicety or reform here. Winner heightens this innate tendency in Highsmith’s writing with his darkly comic take.
David Winner’s first novel, The Cannibal of Guadalajara, won the 2009 Gival Press Novel Award. A film based on a story of Winner's played at Cannes in 2007. His writing has won a Ledge Magazine fiction contest and been nominated for two Pushcarts and an AWP Intro Contest. His work has appeared in The Villa Voice, Fiction, The Iowa Review (upcoming), Chicago Quarterly Review (upcoming), Confrontation, Joyland, Dream Catcher, and several other publications in the U.S. and the U.K.. He is the fiction editor of The American (www.theamericanmag.com), a monthly magazine based in Rome.