Vann Siegert is "The Minus Man" -- rootless, young, lower-middle-class, nondescript yet not
unattractive, a secretive and successful serial killer who takes us into his confidence with the first
sentence of this exquisitely written novel by Lew McCreary. "I will miss the seven rivers most," he
says, as he leaves his home in Oregon to wander across the country. By the final page of the story,
we know for certain that we are the only ones in whom Vann has ever confided. We alone have
been invited to understand his bizarre and often frightening tale.
Other confidants exist only in Vann's imagination -- police interrogators who may someday question
him about his life, his motives, his choices. Indeed, these beings are actively used by him as he talks
to us, struggling, it seems, to make a meaningful narrative of his life for himself.
That Vann is profoundly observant, that he is often poetic, that he is even wise -- all this becomes
obvious as we read his seamless and artful confessions. But he is a killer. Indeed, murder is his one
method of connection with the humans around him. It is his one form of creativity in a world he sees
clearly and appreciates to the smallest detail. Therein lies the special challenge this novel poses -- the
origin of its powerful spell.
Can you believe the many subtle insights of a man who poisons people at random? Can you trust his
metaphors, his analyses, his version of the early experiences that illuminate but never explain his
killing? The people he describes are vividly particular and unfailingly interesting. But can someone as
aberrant as Vann know what matters about anyone or anything at all?
Surely the novel is not making the simple and highly suspect statement that the serial killer is a
metaphor for the monster in us all. It certainly does not seem to be presenting a clinical or simplistic
picture of total insanity either. Vann is far too interesting for that. Witness Vann's description of a
visit to a gas station bathroom:
"The toilet is full of everything. I turn on the faucet and listen to the water strike the basin. It surprises
me: I hear voices rising from the sink. I turn the water off. . . . The drain makes a whispering noise.
The sound falls deeper into the earth, then the silence reigns -- lonely. I'm almost afraid to move my
feet. Who can stand the sound that breaks a good silence?" He knows the voices aren't literal. Or at
least there is a good possibility that he does. And whatever the case, these are fine distinctions
regarding sound and silence.
Examine another such observation in a tavern, as Vann has a beer with a new friend:
"Between songs I close my eyes and listen to the slow arms moving inside the jukebox, putting the
record back, taking another, turning it, lowering it down. You could think of a hell where that might
be your job. Or maybe you might think it would be heaven."
Yet Vann is clearly deluded. At times he literally does hear voices. His relationship with his human
prey is wrapped in fantasy. "There was a readiness in them that drew me," he says, though we can
see these people have no clue as to what is going to happen to them. Of one victim, he says: "The
Yosemite waitress was perfectly tuned. She virtually did herself. I smiled the smile and saw her
breathing change; I saw the color of the skin of her palms deepen, becoming purplish and exposing
pale mottles in the fleshy parts, the tips of the fingers. She sighed as though the breath would never
cease leaving her. It was too easy."
This passage is thoroughly repellent and deeply self-serving, yet it is mingled with fine language and
accurate description. This is what the book offers throughout. Vann's voice is so beautiful that he
even elicits the reader's trust and identification, though he is too intelligent and aware to ask for either
We are never distant from him as he travels across the continent, as he lodges with a seemingly
ordinary family in a seemingly ordinary Massachusetts town; we understand his inordinate love of his
job as a mailman; we gain an almost eerie perspective on contemporary America -- post offices,
roadside diners, high school football games, beaches filled with holiday crowds -- through Vann's
careful and almost loving eyes. His comments on a wholly different kind of killer, with whom he
comes in contact, are fascinating. His accounts of the flawed humans around him ring true.
But we never really root for Vann either. His killings are cruel for all their gentleness. It is terrifying to
watch him poison a stranger in a fast food restaurant. And it is a great and wonderful relief when a
young female victim refuses his offer of poisoned whisky on a cold night. It is hideous to watch Vann
stalk and entice a retarded man with the fatal flask. And though you may feel some disgust for
Vann's remembered family, for the alcoholic mother and the despairing father, you know his
background simply cannot be to blame for this endless string of appalling crimes.
And Vann knows this, too. That's the mystery. Vann knows a lot.
When he imagines, quite vividly, being interrogated by detectives, he says of their bored faces, "All I
can truly see is how disgusted they are at the insignificant little troubles of my younger life." He wants
to be understood; yet again, he does not.
Indeed, throughout, truth is mixed with delusion; yet truth predominates. And though the plot itself is
rather gripping -- whom will he kill next? will he be caught? will he surrender? -- it is really the
hushed, elegant and always fresh perspective of Vann that makes the book quite impossible to put
Yet Vann always presents himself as a pale, un noticeable person -- a common kind of nobody. In
that regard, Vann reminds one of the old theological definition of evil, that since all things proceed
from the good God, evil must be no thing, or quite literally nothing -- chaos, nonbeing, the utter
absence of good. Is that the true meaning of the title? "The Minus Man" is a moral black hole in
space, into which matter is simply and randomly drawn. It's too neat to work. The man, non descript
and quiet as he is, is too aggressive. The tale he tells is too esthetically and psychologically vivid.
The novel doesn't offer easy answers to any of its questions. Yet it is deliciously satisfying page by
page. It invites analysis, yet it is ultimately baffling. It haunts.
I'd recommend it to anyone. I am curious as to what others think about it. But I am defeated by it
It is bold and powerful and finer than much of the belligerently mediocre middle-class writing that
passes for "better fiction" in America today. There is something wonderful about it. But what does it
There have been many films of late with gorgeous cinematography and fine production values, in
which the esthetic craft seems detached from the content and quite superior to it -- a separation that
can be immoral to a greater or lesser degree.
Is this book like that? I honestly don't know. I think style and content are so closely interwoven here
that no such separation can be defined. I suspect that Mr. McCreary (the author of a previous novel,
"Mount's Mistake") is brilliant. This is a challenging, disturbing and deeply memorable novel.
New York TImes Book Review