Failure to Land

After reading a challenging nonfiction book, what I needed was an easy novel. I picked up Dan Lopez’s debut, The Show House. Set in a suburb of Orlando, the book explores the dynamics of a troubled suburban family, while a serial killer stalks young gay men. The story has all of the ingredients of a great thriller: excellent detail, good pacing, revealing inner dialogue, multiple perspectives (including the surprisingly effective second person point of view from the killer), and family friction that sets up the reader for maximum discomfort.

The first character we meet is Thaddeus, a pot-smoking senior, who — along with his wife Cheryl — is getting ready to visit his gay son Steven, son-in-law Peter, and their newly adopted daughter Gertie. Thaddeus is the kind of man who makes his companions wince because he is trying so hard to get along with everyone to make up for three years of estrangement. He speaks too loudly and his frequent jokes are off-color and insulting in one way or another. Unbeknownst to his family, Thaddeus’s memory is fading, and he has difficulty choosing the best way to engage his family members. However, the latter seems to be a lifelong problem with which his wife has learned to live, but his son has not.

Next, we meet the serial killer. The use of the pronoun “you” promises an air of mystery and a satisfying game of “guess the killer.” I was disappointed that the killer, though never named, is easily found out. Lopez gives the killer some vague redemption/retribution reason for his targeting the boys he picks up from clubs, but his drive to kill is never completely explained. Neither is the killer fully sociopathic, so his character remains undeveloped and unsympathetic.

As a hurricane prepares to slide over the Orlando area, the next character Laila, a Puerto Rican and pharmacist, is making preparations. Her seventeen-year-old (half?) brother Alex has been crashing on her couch because his mother Esther has tired of his rebellion. Laila, who harbors resentment for her step-mother — the reason for which even she does not know — has taken him in. Alex is not grateful enough, and after he disappears for the day, Laila ejects him too. He goes off grid for six months. We find out later that he has shacked up with the killer, a real estate agent, who has stashed him in the “show house.”

Just like the hurricane that never hits, the characters never fully coalesce. Thaddeus goes for a walk and ends up abducting his granddaughter from day care to take her to Disney World. But in his foggy state of mind — not improved by his marijuana intake — he cannot find it and ends up back at his house, which is tented for fumigation. All the major characters except Laila, converge on the scene. Laila has done something drastic, which is at the very least unethical, to find her brother. The killer goes back for the last body he left in a public space to protect his lover, and no one in his family seems to be the wiser. Thaddeus never gets his just desserts; perhaps Lopez thinks a near-death experience is enough. In short, the author leaves all loose ends hanging.

If this book had been more complex, I might have been able to accept the lack of resolution. The ending seems too artsy for the narrative. Lopez’s novel is a thriller with great psychological complexity, but the premise is simple and deserves a finale that lands a big punch. Lopez makes a lot of promises that he fails to keep. I do think he has promise as a writer, and I hope his next novel delivers.