Everyone Anton Waker grew up with is corrupt. His parents deal in stolen goods and his first career is a partnership venture with his cousin Aria selling forged passports and social security cards to illegal aliens. Anton longs for a less questionable way of living in the world and by his late twenties has reinvented himself as a successful middle manager. Then a routine security check suggests that things are not quite what they appear. And Aria begins blackmailing him to do one last job for her. But the seemingly simple job proves to have profound and unexpected repercussions.
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About the Author
Emily St. John Mandel was born in British Columbia, Canada. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award and a New York Times bestseller. Her previous novels were Last Night in Montreal, The Singer’s Gun, and The Lola Quartet. She is a staff writer for The Millions, and her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including The Best American Mystery Stories 2013and Venice Noir. She lives in New York City with her husband.
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the singer's gun
By Emily St. John Mandel
Unbridled BooksCopyright © 2009 Emily St. John Mandel
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFor reasons that were difficult to think about in any great detail, let alone explain to his wife in New York, Anton had rented a room on the island of Ischia for the off-season. In exchange for a hundred euros a month and the understanding that he'd wash his own towels, he was given a small blue-painted room overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea with the outline of Capri visible in clear weather against the edge of the sky. For the first few days the silence was miraculous, and he thought he might finally have found what he was looking for.
* * *
His wedding had taken place six days prior to his arrival on the island, after a long and frankly disastrous engagement: Sophie found a dress, bought it, had a panic attack when she tried it on at home, and canceled the wedding. This was a fantastically costly maneuver involving several dozen hours of therapy at three hundred dollars an hour and a mailing of two hundred uninvitations: "The wedding of Sophie Berenhardt and Anton Waker has been post-poned for personal reasons. Thank you for your understanding." She informed him that there was no hyphen in "postponed," took up meditation in addition to the therapy, and came to him a month later with the news that she'd had an epiphany: the wedding was meant to be. Two hundred and fiftyall-new wedding invitations were mailed out, in shades of spring violet; the flowers blossoming in the corners of the invite, she told him, represented rebirth. Anton had just been reading about how violets pinned to a girl's lapel in a certain era had represented lesbianism, but chose not to mention this. Two hundred and one RSVPs arrived without incident. She showed up at work during his lunch break in tears, clutching the two hundred and second. All it said was "We're so glad for you! We'll be there!" and it was only from someone's obligatory aunt, but he knew before she spoke that the wedding was off again. She was scared, she said. It wasn't him. She just needed more time.
"Because I really love her," he told his friend Gary, in response to a question.
He canceled the hall and the caterer and sent out two hundred and fifty uninvitations in shades of blue. The wording on these was much the same, except that she removed the hyphen between "post" and "poned," and then he added the word "indefinitely" right before he sent it to the printers, and then he had to sleep on the couch for two nights. They spent a polite six weeks avoiding the topic. He wasn't sure what to do, but he told himself he'd always known she was flighty and should have seen this whole mess coming. Marrying her was the only course of action that seemed honorable. He was living in a strange limbo wherein he couldn't remember if he loved her or not and he sometimes felt he was losing his mind. He took endless walks through the streets of Manhattan and didn't sleep well. In the evenings while Sophie was working he spent a lot of time with his cat; Jim lay across his lap and purred while Anton read.
Their friends went to absurd lengths to avoid bringing up the wedding. Everyone was terrifically sympathetic. The therapy bills were stupendous. Topics of conversation seemed to change abruptly when they entered rooms where their friends were sitting. He tried to protect her from all this as best he could and to make things generally as pleasant as possible-coffee in bed in the mornings whenever feasible, flowers every Saturday-and he could tell she was trying to keep the mournful cello music to a minimum and tried to appreciate the effort. He sat on the sofa outside the closed door of her study with the cat on his lap and lost himself in the unspeakable beauty of her music.
"I don't mean to state the obvious, but being in awe of someone's talent isn't really the same thing as being in love with them," Gary said, when Anton told him at the end of spring that Sophie was finally ready to get married again. "But what the hell, maybe third time's the charm?"
"Third time's more or less my outer limit," said Anton, and tried to convey this to Sophie in much gentler terms later on ("I don't want to pressure you, sweetie, but ...") and she took it fairly well initially, but then played what sounded like funeral music in her study for days. When he cracked open the study door to see if she wanted to talk about it she just murmured, "I'm working," without looking up from the score, which forced him to close the door again because they'd agreed that when Sophie was working no one could talk to her. He took long walks, read in cafés, went out for drinks with Gary and made very little progress on anything that week.
The manager of the hall he'd booked for the two previous wedding attempts laughed and hung up on him, so he booked a new hall that was slightly more expensive and had been his first choice from the beginning, mailed out three hundred new invitations with a completely different color scheme, agreed with Sophie that it would probably be best if she let him handle the RSVPs this time, and set about relaunching the catering, floral decoration, and wedding-music operations. Some of her old friends from Juilliard had a rock band on the side, so he booked them against his better judgment and tried not to think about what the music might sound like.
All three hundred guests RSVP'd in the affirmative almost immediately-most, he suspected, out of sheer curiosity-and Sophie seemed happy and uncharacteristically calm, although she was playing a lot of frenetic atonal modern music in the evenings. On the day itself she was a vision, dark curls and white silk and the plunge of her neckline, blue necklace on pale skin. It was an evening wedding in a church lit with nearly a thousand candles, and time skipped and moved strangely in the half-light. He was watching her float down the aisle, there were candles everywhere and so many roses that the scent and the candle smoke made him dizzy, she was beside him, they were listening to the priest and he couldn't retain a single word that was being said. She was a mirage in the candlelight and he stood beside her in a kind of suspended animation, he was kissing her, Gary hadn't forgotten the rings, I now pronounce you husband and wife. The band wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been, his new wedding suit was less uncomfortable to dance in than he would have expected, they stayed at the reception til three in the morning, at intervals he heard himself laughing and he felt that he was observing the scene from some distance away.
Time seemed to be moving very rapidly now. He drank champagne and danced with his bride. His friend Ilieva put a flower behind his ear and he left it there for an hour. He felt strangely still inside through the whole thing, calmer than he thought a man getting married really should be-but it wasn't until he was thirty thousand feet over the Atlantic Ocean the next day, Sophie asleep in the seat beside him, that he realized he'd been confusing calm with indifference. He wasn't, now that he thought about it, calm at all. Nor had he fallen out of love, exactly-indifference was the wrong word, it was something softer and more precise-but he also wasn't at all sure that he should have married her. His exhausted bride slept on unaware.
He made his move on the island of Ischia. They arrived in the harbor village of Sant' Angelo in the late morning; a taxi let them off outside an archway beyond which no cars were allowed, and they dragged their suitcases down a cobblestone street to a pink hotel that stood by the water. It was a small two-story building with a half-dozen rooms on the second floor, the first floor taken up by a restaurant. There was no reception desk; the owner, a perpetually smiling man in his fifties named Gennaro, took reservations from a phone set up in a corridor by the door. The corridor led to the restaurant, and a flight of stairs led up to the rooms.
They checked in and spent the day wandering the streets of Sant' Angelo, and Anton thought it was the most beautiful place he'd ever seen. The village allowed no cars and couldn't have accomodated them; the streets rising up from the harbor were open-air corridors between the pale walls of villas, rough cobblestones turning every now and again into stairs. There were walled gardens glimpsed through iron gates, vines spilling over the tops of plaster walls. They turned a corner and the sea was brilliant far below them, bright-painted boats bobbing in the harbor waters. Three cafés competed on a large open piazza, and from the hillside above the harbor their umbrellas were sharp white circles and squares in the sunlight. Sophie and Anton ate dinner in the hotel restaurant and went to bed early, and in the morning they went down to the piazza and sat for a while reading the paper and drinking coffee together.
"You know," Anton said, as casually as possible, "I was thinking about maybe staying on a while."
She looked up from her café latte.
"Our plane tickets are for Thursday," she said. "We have to go back to Rome tomorrow."
"I was thinking if I stayed here for a little bit," trying not to emphasize the I too cruelly, failing, "I could get some traction on my book. You know, really write for a while."
"You're writing a book?"
"It's a new kind of travel book. I've been meaning to tell you about it. I just can't get going with it at home," he said, "but the atmosphere here ..."
"A new kind of travel book," she repeated.
"'We stand in need of something stronger now,'" he said. He was quoting a book review he'd read in the New York Times a while back, but he surmised from her baffled stare that she hadn't read it. He pressed on regardless: "'A travel book that you can read while making your way through this new, alarming world.'"
"That's what you're writing?"
"Well, I haven't started yet. But here, you know, with no distractions ..."
"Well, if you can't write it in New York City, Anton, you won't be able to write it here either."
"Bukowski," he said. "I like that."
"Isn't that what he said? Something about writing in the apocalypse with a cat clawing up your back? Anyway, I just think-"
"No, he said if you're going to create, you're going to create with a cat crawling up your back while the whole city trembles in earthquake, bombardment, flood, and fire."
"Oh," he said.
She regarded him silently.
"As I was saying. I just thought ... I just think it might be nice," he said, "after all we've been through, you know, it's been so intense with the wedding and everything, all the cancellations, I thought maybe we should be apart for a while. I mean, when I say a while, not a long while, just maybe a couple weeks. Sophie, please don't cry."
"I'm not crying."
"You probably hate me," he said. "Suggesting this on our honeymoon of all times."
"No," she said. She was digging in her purse.
"It's okay, I'll pay for your latte. Are you all right? Tell me honestly."
"Fine," she said absently, without looking up. Her handbag yielded a ferry schedule. She examined it for a moment, glanced at the antique gold wristwatch his parents had given her as an engagement gift, stood up from the table and started out of the piazza without looking at him. By the time he found a ten-euro bill in his wallet she was out of sight. He left the money on the table and ran after her, lunged through the door of the hotel and then realized at the bottom of the staircase that she hadn't gone in. When he came back out into the sunlight, blinking, she was already halfway up the road that led out of the village. He caught up with her as she was getting into a taxi.
"Sophie, what are you doing?" He thought he'd never seen her so calm before and wondered if she somehow thrived on catastrophe.
She said something in Italian to the taxi driver, who nodded and started his engine. Somewhat at a loss, Anton climbed in beside her and closed the door.
"Sophie, come on, this is unnecessary. Your luggage. Your passport."
"I carry my passport in my handbag," she said, "and you can dispose of my luggage as you see fit."
Sophie had nothing to say the rest of the way to the ferry terminal. He was on the shoreline side of the minivan; he stared out the window at the jumbled chaos of hotels and villas and the sea beyond, thinking of how beautiful the sea was and how much crassness and vulgarity lay between him and it. She had nothing to say at the ferry terminal either. She ducked away from his kiss and got on the ferry without speaking to him while he hung back uncertainly on the shore.
The way she departed: standing on the ferry moving away from him over the water toward the city of Naples, looking at him where he stood. She was half-smiling in a way that he felt was meant to convey something-sorrow, hope, reproach?-but he couldn't bear it and so he turned away almost immediately, while her features and her half-smile were still clearly visible and the boat still loud in the water, and he realized later that this had been the moment when the cord had finally snapped between them.
He found himself repeating the motion at intervals in the weeks that followed, trying to recapture the clarity of that moment at the ferry terminal. Standing on the road near Sant' Angelo and looking out at the sea, for example, he would turn very slowly and deliberately away from the sunset, and he was invariably disappointed by the lack of finality in the movement.
For the first two weeks on Ischia he did very little. Once he had explained to the hotel owner that he planned on staying a few weeks or possibly longer and worked out an arrangement for the off-season-"You will help me watch the place, yes?" the hotel owner said-the question of what to do next hung overhead like a cartoon thundercloud. He was waiting for an event, and thoughts of it crowded out everything else. He had ideas about his travel book but was too distracted to write anything. The room was so small that he felt claustrophobic unless the doors to the balcony were open, but then the sea was too blue, the air was too bright, and before long he found himself down in one of the cafés on the piazza with a glass of coffee and the Herald Tribune, reading and absorbing sunlight and doing the crossword puzzle and watching the boats. Anton had no books with him that he hadn't already read, which was a problem, and there was an enormous amount of time to kill. He was startled by how much he missed his cat. He'd rescued Jim as a kitten two years earlier, and the cat had been an adoring orange one-eyed presence in Anton's life ever since. He went for long walks up the stairs of the town, past houses and gardens terraced up the side of the hill, and spent hours sitting by the harbor at night. On clear nights Capri was a distant scattering of lights. He could see it from his room but preferred to be down by the harbor, where you could walk to a certain point at the edge of the piazza, turn away from Capri, and imagine that nothing stood between you and the north coast of Africa. He harbored vague notions of escaping to Tunisia.
"Are you having a nervous breakdown?" Gary asked, over a phone line crackly with enormous distance.
"No," Anton said. He was leaning against a wall beside the pay phone in the Sant' Angelo piazza, looking out at the boats moving silently up and down in the harbor waves. Imagining the phone lines running under the Tyrrhenian Sea. The piazza was deserted. There were people inside a nearby café that was frequented mostly by fishermen, but the restaurants and shops were shuttered and dark. The wind off the water was cold.
"You'd tell me, right? Your best man and everything."
"Of course," Anton said. "The question's not unreasonable."
Excerpted from the singer's gun by Emily St. John Mandel Copyright © 2009 by Emily St. John Mandel. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In Manhattan Anton Waker knows he has come a long way from his days as a forger of documents although to do so he must distance himself from his family who deal in illegal activities. He is a water systems consultant in demand, has a pretty wife and an office romance on the side. However, his past that he prefers to pretend never happened resurfaces when a routine background check proves his Harvard diploma hanging on his office wall is forged. Adding to his trepidation that life as he knows it and enjoys is over is his cousin, Aria Waker, who sells forged passports and social security cards to illegals. She demands Anton use his excellent forgery skill in what should prove a quite lucrative venture. However, a fourth woman enters his life and frightens him more than his relatives. State Department Agent Alexandra Broden is investigating a forgery ring in which she is almost ready to make arrests starting with the extended Waker brood but has not figured out Anton's role nor that of his secretary Elena with her Arctic secrets. This is an interesting crime caper that takes the audience to Brooklyn, Arctic Canada and Italy as an obsessed Fed goes after a family criminal ring. Overall the this is an entertaining cross Atlantic thriller.line is fast-paced and contains an intriguing cast. However, too many flashbacks that explain what makes the key players (especially Anton, Broden and Elena) tick detracts from the pacing as it feels disruptive. Still this is an entertaining cross Atlantic thriller. Harriet Klausner
Anton Waker is on an island in Italy. A year ago, he would never have thought this would be his life. Back then he worked in an office and was about to be married. He was the picture of respectability. But that picture was marred. Anton was having an affair with his secretary, Elena. His job had disappeared from under him; one day he got to work and his staff was gone and he had been transferred to an office in the basement and given no work. In fact, Anton's whole life had been a charade. He had been raised by parents who made their living by selling stolen goods. His cousin Aria had lured him into an illegal business of selling counterfeit social security cards and passports. Anton tried to leave that life behind. But Aria has forced him to do one last job; a job that has left him stranded on this island, and that has forced him to leave his entire life behind. His wife is gone; his job is gone, his life as he's known it is gone. Can Anton build another life; one that is built on honesty and that gives him the home and peace he has been searching for his entire life? Emily St. John Mandel is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. She has a knack of creating characters who live on the margin, who are searching for connection and meaning, and for making the reader care about them. The writing is sparse and the reader sometimes feels adrift in a fog between them and the story. But then a flash of light occurs and the connection is made, leaving the reader feeling more involved in the character's lives than they would have suspected. The reader finishes the last page satisfied and content, and already anxious for Mandel's next effort. This book is highly recommended for all readers.
The Singer's Gun is one of those rare hybrids: a page-turner that happens to be written in glorious prose. Whether you read Dashiell Hammett or Lawrence Durrell (I read both), you're going to be very happy you discovered this. Even though the book is structured as a thriller - somewhere between classic noir and the exotic travel/murder tale - Mandel is first and foremost a poetic stylist. I managed to get an advance copy through a friend; she's in the publishing industry, and we were both knocked flat by Mandel's first novel, Last Night in Montreal. And she agrees with me: if anything, Mandel's getting even better. HIGHLY recommended.
I enjoyed Mandel's first book, reviewed here, and her second book provides another great read. Anton Waker is at a crossroads in his life. Until recently, his existence was largely based on participating in the shady dealings of the family business. Now he wants to clean up his morals and get out, but not before his cousin Aria demands he run one last job for her. Torn between thoughts of his affair with his co-worker and his indifferent bride to be, Anton agrees and heads towards events that are ultimately inevitable. THE SINGER'S GUN is a worthy sophomore novel that reads true enough to be ripped from today's headlines. Emily St. John Mandel has a liquid style of writing where she can tell multiple story lines simultaneously and switch tenses between present and past, all the while keeping the pacing flowing smoothly. The way she unfolds Anton's story through the chapters captured my attention and held it rapt until I finished. Mandel understands that people are never one-dimensional, and so she writes her characters deeply layered. It will be interesting to watch her grow as an author in her future books.
To some degree or another, we all live in a caste society. The Singer's Gun offers us an antidote: If you cleave with all your might to your own deepest nature, the rewards will be -- goddamned Mediterranean in nature. This is not your soulless Horatio Alger dogged overcoming-of-obstacles; it is the transformative oomph of the personal lodestone. When coupled with shady imports, felonious forgery a skewering look at illegal immigration -- and of course Emily St. John Mandel's sly prose -- The Singer's Gun becomes a passport out of -- well, whatever the reader happens to be mired in at the moment of that reading. And a passport -- as we learn in all of Mandel's work -- is a *very* valuable thing.