June 8, 2011

08 June 2011 Review, The Lock Artist, Steve Hamilton

It's funny how your life can turn on one talent that you don't even know you've been given. 
Bet Edgar winner Steve Hamilton recalls that prescient line from The Lock Artist.  

Steve Hamilton's a tension artist: I bit my nails and kept praying that Mike, aka the Milford Mute, would talk on every one of this novel's three-hundred pages.  He doesn't.  And he gets in more scrapes than an alley cat.  

Mike the Milford Mute, a high school junior, pulls us inside his silent world by sharing his knowledge of lock picking and safe cracking, and by persuading us that--while accepting responsibility for his criminal activities--he's a victim of circumstances. 

As a boy, Mike witnessed his father bashing in his mother's lover's head and then killing mom.  Running for safety, Mike locked himself inside a gun safe, which his father dumped in the water--Mike inside--leaving the boy to drown.  The event traumatized Mike, aka Miracle Boy, and left him mute. 

The Lock Artist is an addicting read, but how well does Steve wield his literary tropes?  Again, he's master.  I'm better than a paper shredder when it comes to parsing tropes, but I had to stop and ask: is this novel like Pilgrim's Progress?  Or Alighieri's The Divine Comedy, some kind of moral allegory?  If so, what?  

It isn't. The strength of Steve's writing is a key metaphor that serves as the point from which he spins the story.  Everything in this aptly named novel is spun from the lock metaphor.  Steve drills down on this metaphor from the beginning and never--ever--stops.  Telling the story from prison, the Lock Artist says, "This thing that has kept me silent for all of these years.  Locked up here inside me, ever since that day.  I cannot let go of it. So I cannot speak.  I cannot make a sound" (2).

Mike is examined by many pros and becomes outraged that they fail to "unlock his wounded psyche."  He isn't afflicted with selective mutism or psychogenic aphonia; he's just decided not to speak.  While  his occupation lands him in life or death situations that would make us all scream for help, Mike makes not one sound.  Ever. 

Unlocking safes becomes both a tactile and emotional metaphor, Mike's way of communicating by being the rare artist who can feel the tumblers in the locks.  They speak to him, these tumblers, but their feel and sound and math is a silent vocabularly that gleans Mike praise and abuse in equal doses.  He's locked inside himself, can't share that terrible event from childhood, not even with Amelia Marsh, love of his life, so the lock represents his repression, the spinning noises of the ones he can't pick the vocabularly of frustation.

He's hyper aware of his talent.  Mike knows his lock artistry is not only the one talent that he didn't even know he'd been given but also the one upon which his life turns and turns and turns.  "Some talents," he says, referring to his clandestine work for a group of thugs led by The Ghost, a master lock artist, and Fishing Hat, Tall Mustache, and Sleepy Eyes, "cannot be forgiven.  Ever" (59).  So the beauty of the lock metaphor is that we must agree with the Lock Artist, who although he seeks our understanding for why he does what he does, also knows he must do better. 

He finds salvation.  Amelia Marsh, daughter of the man who first involved Mike with the thugs, draws Mike out.  For him, the lock is a form of control, but when Amelia responds to a drawing in which he tells her how beautiful she is by drawing comic panels of her own, he lets go, just a little.  "That feeling I got when I picked that lock and stepped into that dark kitchen . . . I'd have to live without it for a while" (150).  He continues relinquishinhg control to Amelia, communicating by drawing comic book panels depicting his thoughts.  This giving up slowly in exchange for her love culminates when he takes her to the home where the murders occured and draws comic strips on the house's walls, depicting the events.  

Mike's quest is not just about freeing the terrified young boy locked inside him.  Steve Hamilton's lock metaphor serves double duty as a powerful sexual metaphor.  Mike--recall--is a high schooler when he meets Amelia, so this novel is about more than fixing a broken kid and catching thugs.  It's also a coming of age novel, another testament to the strength of Steve's choice of metaphor.  

Mike's sleeping with Amelia, but like Juliet, she's removed from his reach by her father, and he has to track her down.  The lock metaphor becomes synonymous with Mike's busting through his own insecurities and earning a level of intimacy in his and Amelia's relationship.  One day The Ghost shows Mike a forbidding lineup of impenetrable safes--ladies.  "The greatest puzzle in the world, young man, the greatest challenge a man can face," he instructs Mike, "is solving the riddle of a woman's heart" (231).

So as Mike learns lock artistry from The Ghost, he also learns how to open a woman without using brute force, unlike some lock artists who destroy the safes they open.  This skill in opening safes takes a "special kind of touch," like caressing a woman . . . deep inside, Mike is told.  It's important to note that Mike, who eventually wins Amelia, is also known as "Boxman."  He opens safes--boxes--and other boxlike mechanisms; Amelia.  

The Lock Artist is an excellent example of how a writer can take a metaphor and transform it into an Edgar, a well-earned award in Steve Hamilton's case.

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