Collectors: A Novel


Collectors, by critically acclaimed author Paul Griner, is an exquisitely menacing story of one woman's dangerous fascination with a seductive, mysterious man. At her cousin's wedding, Jean Duprez, an advertising-agency art director who specializes in effective but unsettling concepts for her clients, meets a handsome stranger named Steven Cain. What follows is the story of a relationship so ominous and puzzling that the reader is drawn into the author's designs ...
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Collectors, by critically acclaimed author Paul Griner, is an exquisitely menacing story of one woman's dangerous fascination with a seductive, mysterious man. At her cousin's wedding, Jean Duprez, an advertising-agency art director who specializes in effective but unsettling concepts for her clients, meets a handsome stranger named Steven Cain. What follows is the story of a relationship so ominous and puzzling that the reader is drawn into the author's designs as inevitably, and as helplessly, as Jean is drawn to Steven. She seeks him out although he often seems indifferent to her, she disregards his disturbing personal history, and she tells him about her own transgressions. And so it becomes intriguingly hard to say whether she is a possible victim of evil or has deliberately put herself in harm's way. The story also dramatizes the intricacies of collecting, particularly the wary bargaining between seller and buyer. In Paul Griner's hands, this dance of flea-market negotiation comes to seem nearly as sinister as the increasingly dark encounters between Jean and Steven. One is a matter of guile and folly, the other of life and death.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
When Paul Griner's debut collection of short stories, Follow Me (currently out of print), was published in 1996, some critics observed that, although talented, he was a "writer who may still be finding his way." The title story, a sexy and twisted peephole into the life of a New York City performance artist, caught the eye of the film producer Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black, Wild Wild West), who quickly snapped up the rights. Not bad for a writer who hasn't found his way. Now, with the publication of his first novel, Collectors, there can be no doubt that Paul Griner has arrived. But don't bet on strolling into this book as if it were The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing. Although it is an ostensibly breezy 174-page love story following the trials and tribulations of a sexy young woman, there's a lot to be discovered below the surface. Dark, mysterious, complex, and subtle, Collectors is the kind of novel that keeps writing itself on your brain long after the last page has been turned.

Like many serious contemporary fiction writers, Griner teaches the craft of writing. Though currently living in Kentucky, where he is an assistant professor of English at the University of Louisville, he's a born-and-bred Bostonian (where Collectors is set). In addition to acquiring multiple graduate degrees, Griner has also been a Fulbright Scholar in Portugal, where he translated contemporary Portuguese short stories into English. When not slaving away in academia, he has taken odd jobs as a carpenter, a painter, a tour guide, and a truck driver. "Almost all of my jobs after college were designed to give me enough time to write," Griner says, "either while doing them or through making money, which would then give me time off. Usually it worked, though occasionally it backfired. I injured my back on one job, working on a crew building a post-and-beam house in the middle of the country. Since I was injured in the first half hour and no one wanted to lose a day working, I spent the day lying on a piece of plywood, until the crew put me in the back of the truck and drove me home at the end of the day."

The protagonist of Collectors is Jean Dubonnet, an advertising-agency art director who has a keen ability to produce dangerously exclusive, albeit extremely successful, concepts. (For example: "Not for everybody...probably not even for you.") An awkward, Ally McBeal-ish type with an edgy sense of intelligence, Jean is single and rather friendless. On weekends she enjoys wandering through the flea markets down near the shore, trying not to look like the collector of antique pens -- Cloisonnés, Watermans, Mont Blancs -- that she is. "That was the cardinal rule of the market, not to display your interest, otherwise you spooked your prey."

"While I don't collect," Griner says, "I've always enjoyed the markets. I didn't do any research on the psychology of collecting, though I've been struck by recent readings about collectors, by how much they are motivated by things from their past." Jean's past is full of therapy, hospitalization, and random outbursts. As a child, she was very close with her cousin Claudia. But then Jean turned Claudia's home into a giant open-pit barbecue, and the girls were forbidden to see each other again.

At Claudia's wedding, the two are reunited for the first time in many years. It's there that Jean meets Steven Cain, a mysterious friend of Claudia's, who warms to Jean and offers to take her out for a sail on his boat. The sailing trip goes off without a hitch -- a little sun, lunch, wine, and gratuitous sex in the v-berth. But as Jean is stepping into her car to leave, Steven slams the door on her hand, crushing her fingers. An accident? Perhaps, but what kind of man would attend to his lover by hailing a cab and sending her off to the hospital alone? Afterward, Jean doesn't hear from Steven for a week, and yet she can't stop thinking about him. The next weekend at the flea market, exploring cigar boxes for underpriced pens, she bumps into Steven. It seems he's also a collector, a collector of various kinds of binoculars. Bobbing from table to table, Steven makes the ominous observation, "Death is always the draw. Collectors like nothing better." Against her better judgment, Jean finds herself gearing up for another cruise. But this time the seas are high. A squall is moving in. The question is, should she be afraid of Steven, knowing that his ex-wife and former fiancée disappeared at sea?

"I would like readers to like Jean," Griner says. "Though intelligent, and strong at work, she's also fragile. I see her as a mixture of hopeful and self-destructive urges." While the ending leaves many open-ended questions à la Salinger's story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish", namely whether Jean lives or dies, Collectors asks readers: Are you always complicit in the outcome of your actions, or are you perhaps a pawn in the game of life? "I hope my book is entertaining on many levels," Griner says. "But most of all, I hope that when someone finishes reading it, he or she hasn't finished with the book. By that I mean I hope that readers are still debating many things. That's what I think the best fiction does."

—Nelson Taylor

From the Publisher
"Paul Griner's Follow Me is one of the most vivid, distinctive collections I've read in years. His range of subject and technique is extraordinary: patient, complex explorations of family life, flinty fabliaux noirs, stories about doctors and artists and outlaws, all told with conviction and velocity and a sure sense of the form. Mr. Griner's book is a present joy, and a bright promise."                                                     --Tobias Wolff

"Paul Griner is a new American writer of great promise. The stories in Follow Me are pitched at a high level, skillfully executed and driven through with maximum velocity. Griner's characters are wonderful, and they continue to resonate in the reader's mind long after the collection has been read."
--Thom Jones

Robert Taylor

''Collectors'' is a stylish thriller putting a contemporary spin on a plot that has done yeoman service in the Victorian ''sensation novels'' of Wilkie Collins and movies such as ''Gaslight'' (with Ingrid Bergman) or ''Suspicion'' (with Cary Grant). The basic scenario centers on a beautiful but vulnerable woman who doesn't immediately recognize - as the audience does - that her leading man is a rotter. Variations on this theme might treat him as a rotter but portray a heroine who doesn't care, or else might clear him of villainy altogether. Paul Griner, however, is more interested in the psychology of obsession than in the conventions of the whodunit, and the result is eerily sinister.

An advertising-agency art director named Jean Duprez attends the wedding of her cousin Claudia. Clearly, Jean is not the most popular guest. Her aunt gives her a glacial welcome, and her own responses to the pleasantries and come-ons of the males at the party are decidedly insolent. The foreshadowing of the wedding scenes suggests a mood of nasty psychic cannibalism between the sexes. ''He took the cigar from his mouth, its end sodden and horribly mis-shapen, as if it was something dredged from the bottom of the lake, and she felt like asking if he knew he wasn't supposed to eat it.''

By way of contrast, Jean meets a handsome stranger to whom she is attracted. Steven Cain invites her to go sailing on the boat he keeps moored in Marblehead Harbor, and though she has no experience with boats, Jean accepts. Lest anyone imagine that this is romantic genre fiction, one may consider the ads she is churning out at the agency. These are rather like Benetton ads, where nothing is directly stated but disquieting overtones are rampant. Moreover, there's the business of the undertaker whose phone number is one digit away from Jean's; the spot of blood on the bed; above all, Jean's passionate collecting of pens.

In Griner's novel, the collecting of pens has a neurotic sexual quality. Each weekend Jean visits a mammoth flea market in, of all places, Marblehead, and haggles for cloisonne and Mont Blanc pens with the vendors. These negotiations resemble her relationship with Steven, in which indifference, lust, and deception combine. The operative word to describe their behavior is ''bargaining.''

''Years before she'd heard that Arab traders, bargaining, watched your eyes, and once your pupils narrowed they were certain you had reached the price you were willing to pay and they would refuse to go any lower. Vendors throughout the various fairs seemed aware of that folklore; they were always watching her eyes.''

Not until midway through the narrative is it plain why Jean's aunt snubbed her at Claudia's wedding. By then, the relations of Jean and Steven have assumed the center of interest. Violence when it erupts is swift, shocking, and unpredictable, for this is a story that emphasizes suspense. Its virtue is a pacing that won't let go; its drawbacks are the questions a reader might ask when the pace eases somewhat. Is Jean a masochist enmeshed in the dark games of a man who seems indifferent to her? Does Steven's own obsession, collecting binoculars, balance out Jean's pen fixation rather too neatly? Has the subplot, which involves a fire, a genuine function in the story, or is it there for the sake of motivation?

The North Shore, as Griner renders it, is a generalized setting. Fair enough, save for the migrant pelicans appearing on Page 128. Jean flinches at the passage of their shadows: ''`Pelicans,' she said, and counted them. Fifteen.'' Even if pelicans were blown off course by a storm, it is unlikely that 15 of these tropical birds would pass sequentially over Marblehead Harbor. Griner's editors must have been looking in the wrong direction.

The Boston Globe
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Think of Damage and other novels that lace tension with frightening sexual overtones, then add the advantage of literary style and assurance, and you have this mysterious, mesmerizing story of psychological suspense. We meet Griner's protagonist, Boston ad agency art director Jean Dubonnet, at her long-estranged cousin Claudia's wedding. Her general unease is gradually revealed as stemming from a gruesome incident in her past, a youthful "game" that she and Claudia played as teenagers, in which they set fire to Claudia's heirloom-filled house and critically burned Claudia's father. It's obvious that Jean still bears psychological scars: she is edgy, has an acerbic tongue, is emotionally cool and self-protective. Yet she is immediately attracted to handsome, charming Steven Cain, who says that Claudia has told him all about her, and that he has been watching her for some time. Steven invites Jean out on his sailboat, where they have percussive sex. Afterwards, he closes her hand in a car door, and sends her--alone, in a taxi--to the hospital. There, the nurse on duty is Claudia, who comments rather elliptically that Steven has "a lot of accidents." By this time, the reader knows that the alternately ardent and elusive Steven is unstable at best, and that Jean is in peril, but frightening details about the women in Steven's past and the true depth of Jean's penchant for danger are still to come. Meanwhile, Griner (Follow Me) discloses that both Jean and Steven are obsessed collectors: in symbolic expression of their characters, Jean collects antique fountain pens and Steven, binoculars. As readers ponder echoes of John Fowles's The Collector, and events move toward the feared denouement, Griner's meticulous care in setting each scene accelerates the suspense. It is too bad that several character traits that Griner repeatedly emphasizes (Jean's preternatural sense of smell, possible collusion between Claudia and Steven) are left vague Still, he never resorts to the staged faux-frissons of conventional psychological thrillers, and his spare prose convincingly portrays the process by which an intelligent, independent woman becomes the victim of an obsessed predator--or perhaps of her own bent toward self-destruction. Agent, Nicole Aragi at Watkins/Loomis. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Jean Dubonnet collects antique pens, Steven Cain collects binoculars, and both pursue their hobbies with a devotion that borders on obsessiveness. They meet at a wedding, and Jean is drawn to this enigmatic man, despite his impersonal, secretive demeanor and erratic behavior. Ignoring her instincts, she allows herself to pursue him; of course, their brief and odd courtship can come to no good. A familiar plot line doesn't harm Griner's first novel (after the story collection Follow Me), which is a stunner. Griner contrasts the collectors' bargaining with the daily transactions acquaintances, co-workers, and lovers make with each other. Despite the novel's brevity, Griner doesn't rush the characterization, and he courageously presents Jean as complicit in her situation. He also skillfully fosters a disturbing sense of dread from beginning to end, and readers will enjoy piecing together characters' motives and actions. This novel straddles the literary and thriller genres very well, and readers in both camps should devour it. Enthusiastically recommended for public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/99.]--Marc A. Kloszewski, Indiana Free Lib., PA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
The New Yorker
As a child, Jean Duprez collected scars while playing dangerous games with her cousin Claudia; as an adult and a sharp witted ad executive, she collects fountain pens. But when Steve Cain, a cold, eccentric collector, befriends Jean at Claudia's wedding she remebers her taste for recklessness, and the two quickly become involved in a menacing romance. This suspenseful novel is at once delicate and bizarre in it's portrait of obsession; Griener's spare prose never reveals why Steve and Jane behave the way they do, but his story, like any true curio, is surprisingly haunting.
Kirkus Reviews
The gloomiest love story since Sweeney Todd, in a first novel from the author of Follow Me (stories: 1996). Jean Dubonnet is the sort of middle-aged ice queen who you just know is going to fall for the wrong man someday. The art director of a Boston ad firm, Jean has learned through her work that the best way to make something alluring is to make it aloof, and her
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679448464
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/27/1999
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 192
  • Product dimensions: 5.79 (w) x 8.55 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul Griner's first book was the collection Follow Me. His award-winning stories have appeared in many publications, including Story, Ploughshares, Zoetrope, and Playboy. He lives with his family in Kentucky, where he is an assistant professor of English at the University of Louisville.
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Read an Excerpt

He secured the boat and walked her toward her car. Her legs were surprisingly tired, and the first few steps on the dock she found herself bracing for the boards to lurch beneath her, as if it was the land that was treacherous and not the sea, and when they reached the street and he took her hand, it felt natural, though his palm was more callused than it had seemed while moving over her body. She was about to ask him home when he stopped and cleared his throat, and the sound thrilled her, because being with Steven was like being with Claudia had been, only now, as an adult, that sense that someone else was so much like you they might have been your twin. She knew what he was thinking, what was coming, and thought that his place was as good as hers; better even: she could always leave if things went wrong. She shifted the basket hanging from her elbow and leaned close to him.

"Listen," he said. His face was ruddy from the sun, his hair windblown. She pressed his hand to let him know he should ask, and swung the basket behind her, believing he meant to kiss her. In an odd way, she thought, it would be their first kiss: the sex had been so spontaneous that it almost didn't count. She was surprised at her impulsiveness, but not dismayed, the Grieshaber, the sex, it was as if she'd suddenly reinhabited her old self, the person she'd been years before with Claudia, and that pleased her. With him she felt whole again, her again. The connection was deep and palpable and utterly unnecessary to explain.

"I hope you won't think me rude," he said. "But I have a fair amount of work to do cleaning up the boat."

Her knees locked, her breathing clenched, she felt as though she'd been gutted. What was he saying? To her the boat had seemed perfectly clean, but it was clear that he was dismissing her. She let go of his hand and walked on, thinking that perhaps he hadn't enjoyed the sex or the silence after all.

To cover her embarrassment, she was compensatory, overly cool. "No." She folded her arms and watched her feet on the cobbles, taking care not to trip, aware of the bouncing of her breasts beneath her sweater, of the basket bumping at her side. The motion of her breasts struck her as absurd, and it galled her to think he'd seen her naked so shortly before, that even now, her bra was stuffed into the top of the basket. "I understand perfectly," she said. "I've work to do myself."

He was walking beside her, so she quickened her stride and pulled ahead. "I probably shouldn't have come at all."

A loose cobble shifted under her shoe, throwing her off balance, and when he took her arm and stopped she was brought up short and forced to face him.
"Did you not have a good time?" he said.
His directness shocked her into honesty. "Actually, I had a wonderful time."
"Then you shouldn't say that."
She laughed, surprised, and then swallowed the laughter, feeling herself blush, the skin on her face grow tight. What was he about? She pulled her arm away. "I suppose you're right."

He walked beside her to her car and tried once to hold her hand, but she would not allow it, switching the basket so it swung between them. If he'd had a good time, he hadn't said so. She fumbled with her keys. Should she ask him if he had, or should she wait to be invited out again? Perhaps he'd suggest another trip. She put the key in the lock, hoping that he would, since that would be her best chance for revenge, and imagined his mouth clenching into a small bud of disappointment when she refused him.

Before she decided, he opened the door and took her elbow and steered her into the car. The late sun was burning on the windshield, and he blinked his eyes against it.
She moved her legs, gripped the door frame, bent at the waist, and began to slide in, glad her shorts weren't shorter.

"Here you go," he said, and slammed the door on her hand.

The pain was so startling that it was not instantaneous. She saw him shudder, and she had a moment when she was looking at her improperly hinged fingers, knowing the pain was about to come but aware that it was not yet there, and then it enveloped her. It was shattering, so total it seemed akin to the language of pleasure. Her legs went but she would not lean against him, refusing to disintegrate in front of a man who was still largely a stranger, and who caused in her such conflicting emotions; instead, she sagged against the car.

He opened his mouth but no words came out, and his face was as pale as paper, as if he'd never seen the sun. With an effort, she handed him her keys.

"I can't drive," he said. His breathing was very shallow.
She started around for the passenger side, leaning her elbow on the roof for leverage. "I'll shift with my other hand," she said. She needed to get to a hospital quickly; her voice was beginning to shake.
"No." He stopped her. "I mean I can't drive at all."

She tried to comprehend what he was saying, but in her pain the meaning of his words seemed impossible to grasp. He glanced over her shoulder, squeezed her arm, left. Why was he running away? The back of her hand was already purple. Doubling over, she heard a horn.

He'd brought back a taxi; she saw the yellow hood and roof through swimming eyes. She cradled her hand in her lap as she climbed in, fingers curled, palm up, and he stuffed money through the driver's window, gave directions, and banged on the roof; the taxi shot away. She expected bones to burst through her skin, her mouth tasted like old pennies, she bit her tongue to stifle a moan.

Later, she would be angry that he'd not come along, even though she knew people reacted oddly to pain and guilt, but just now, feet jammed against the transmission hump, holding herself rigid in the speeding car, she was grateful not to have to listen to endless apologies. Her agony was pure enough, and she did not want to mix it with anger or disgust.

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