Can we like a character who has the emotional fuse of a sociopath, a man who will viciously beat the hell out of another man with little provocation or warning? Adam Berlin, in his debut novel Headlock, answers this literary question, oddly, in the affirmative.
Dess Rose is a very violent young man. After barely finishing college, which was paid for by a wrestling scholarship, Dess parks cars in a New York City garage for a living. He takes after his grandfather, a Russian migr, a wrestler who was barely able to contain his temper, when he could contain it at all. The tendency toward violence has apparently skipped generations in the Rose family; Dess' father is a professor who unfavorably compares Dess to little brother Derek, a Harvard overachiever. Dess' temper is a reaction to his helplessness in life:
It was a little bit like being crazy. It was being crazy. In my head I put my dad on his back and kept him there, pressed him down harder and harder until he was hurt and the craziness was in his eyes and there was nothing he could do, on his back, pinned. The picture came back to me when I was drunk ... I'd feel the mat near my shoulders like I was about to be pinned. I'd feel the blood rush. ... I would wait until someone was unlucky enough to cross me. ... Sometimes just a look that I didn't like. It was in my blood. The balance. The speed. The instinct to find weaknesses in another man's body. I would take them down. Beat them until my hands were stained with blood. Until they were out. Then I'd run.
Like a kidnapped person who gains empathy for his captors, Dess has internalized his grand- father's ways:
I thought of the game my grandfather taught us as kids. The Hand Game. He would take one of our hands in his and squeeze it hard. The object of the game was to show no pain. My grandfather was a man of few words and fewer expressions but he did explain to me that in a fight it was important to show the opponent nothing. To show was weak. To conceal was strong.
The adventure begins when Dess' older cousin Gary, an enormously fat man with a winning smile who gambles for a living, tracks down Dess and invites him on a mysterious road trip. They drive to Las Vegas in Gary's Jaguar, a long trip during which they get to know each other much better. At first Dess does not push Gary to reveal their mission; he is simply happy to escape his life, especially with a mentor he respects so much.
Their trek draws them closer and reveals pockets of incompatibility and tension. They philosophize and discuss everything, as in a buddy movie. Their discussions are peppered with gambling and wrestling metaphors, the ways in which they relate to life. The trip is exhilarating and then exhausting.
The story climaxes in Vegas, as Dess and Gary encounter some characters who stretch the bounds of reality: Blue, a knee-breaker who would fit comfortably in a James Bond story, and Tia, an impossibly wonderful Denny's waitress. Okay, so the story is somewhat absurd, but Berlin is able to maintain an internally consistent story and mood, and thus the novel is slightly believable and, more importantly, exciting and entertaining.
Perhaps the novel works because Dess tells us his story, and does not try to clean it up or make himself look better in our eyes; Dess' candidness reveals his vulnerability and his humanity. He's not just a bully, but in fact a sympathetic character. We actually end up cheering for Dess, no mean feat on Berlin's part.