Epiphany Jones, by Michael Grothaus, is a book that took me so far beyond my comfort zone that I was tempted to set it aside. The challenging subject matter – child sex trafficking, pornography, and man’s ability to look the other way – left me feeling depressed and disturbed, not least because I am aware that these things happen in real life. And little is done to clamp down on the sex trade when the wealthy, the powerful, and the famous are involved. It is easier to look the other way and get on with ordinary life, easier for all except the victims.
Such a story could not work, and this one does work, if it were not tamped with humour. Unusually this humour is not fueled by women, whose feelings and behaviours are so routinely mined and mocked for men’s amusement. Rather it is the wider attitudes of society as a whole, and in particular the cult of celebrity, that are deftly unmasked. Asides are scattered throughout the horrific aspects of the tale, leading to laughter at the most improbable of situations.
The reader is taken into the dark heart of what some men will do if they think they can get away with it, how the powerful will use the vulnerable as a commodity from which personal pleasure and profit may be derived without concern for the pain this will inflict. Alongside are the conceits and foolishnesses that colour everyday life. The story is as cleverly written as it is challenging. I couldn’t set it aside because I needed to know what happened next.
The protagonist, Jerry Dresden, is a man with problems. He is addicted to porn and is plagued by people he hears and sees who do not exist. When he manages to sleep he suffers vivid, recurring nightmares. Through a friend of his parents he has been given a job at a museum which he hates.
Early on we learn that Jerry’s little sister died before she reached her teens, and that he blames himself for her death. A few years later he was a passenger in his father’s car when it hit a tree, killing the man. Jerry’s mother moved them across the country, away from Hollywood where her husband had worked in PR for a successful film producer. Jerry coped with these traumas by immersing himself in tacky television and the darker side of the internet.
The action kicks off when a young woman Jerry remembers from a dream, Epiphany Jones, ambushes his life. She frames him for theft and murder in order to blackmail him into accompanying her to Mexico. There he discovers a world controlled by violent pimps and people traffickers. Epiphany will not explain to him what she is trying to achieve, only that she is being instructed by God.
As Jerry and Epiphany travel from place to place the violence they encounter rises. The slow reveal of their backstories is as shocking as their ongoing problem with a powerful and sadistic thug named Nico. He has an empire to protect and the money to buy immunity from the law. He also has a history with Epiphany.
The denouement draws each thread together for a dramatic finale which, whilst upping the death count significantly, continues to poke fun at the foibles of a public intent on idolising their celluloid heroes and the behaviours this creates in the stars. The glitterati are as much a commodity to the Hollywood money makers as everything else these career making men encounter. The edifice they construct, built on the shallowest of foundations yet coveted by so many, brings out the basest of behaviours in their successes who consider themselves entitled to whatever they desire.
A sobering read that left me reeling, yet also a brilliant depiction of a skewed world where style matters more than substance and people are reduced to product. The writing is raw and unflinching, the story deftly put together with a depth that offers much for the reader to ponder. It has been said that good fiction’s job is to disturb the comfortable – this book is an extraordinary read that unstintingly succeeds.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda Books.