If you’re in the mood for a smart, unusual thriller, The Dismantling is a terrific choice. On the surface, it’s about the illegal organ trade in the United States. I have no idea how much of this sort of criminal activity actually takes place here. As we all know, once you start researching something on the Internet, you can easily descend into a rabbit hole and emerge with no greater understanding of the original subject you were trying to investigate. That’s what happened when I typed in “black market organs” in the Google search box on my computer.
In Brian DeLeeuw’s thought-provoking novel, cash-strapped Maria Campos has little difficulty finding an organ broker online who is willing to buy a section of her liver. Medical school dropout Simon Worth has joined a shady organization called Health Solutions that matches poor and desperate people willing to sell their organs with rich and desperate people whose time on the legal transplant list is running out. Posing as the second cousin of Lenny Pellegrini, an NFL player suffering from alcoholism and severe depression, Maria travels to New York to “donate” a portion of her liver, collect a large chunk of cash, and start a new life. When things go badly awry, Simon is forced to face his painful past and decide what kind of person he wants to be in the future.
The “dismantling” of the title refers not just to the dismantling of Maria’s body when she sells her liver, but to the breakdown of her life when she suffered trauma as an adolescent. Simon’s life fell apart when he experienced tragedy as a young adult, and Lenny’s physical and mental health were destroyed when he was repeatedly injured during his football career. DeLeeuw asks the reader to consider whether lives can be reassembled after they have been stripped bare. Can there be redemption after “dismantling”?
DeLeeuw explains in an interview with fellow author Christopher Beha how he came up with the idea of using illegal transplants as a vehicle to explore themes of morality in contemporary society:
I came up with the character of Simon Worth first—a young man who is carrying around an enormous amount of guilt and shame, someone who feels that he is not capable of living a regular life with a regular job, friends, girlfriend. He feels defective in some way—psychically isolated—and yet he also has these large student loans to pay off from a failed attempt at medical school, so he needs to get his hands on money quickly. He can’t just retreat entirely from life. I knew I wanted take this character with very little to lose, somebody who feels as though a vital part of himself has already died, and place him in the center of a criminal underworld, turn him into an unlikely criminal.
This dovetailed with my more general desire to write an internally-focused, slow-burn crime novel. In 2008 and 2009, I started noticing articles about the organ trade popping up more frequently in mainstream newspapers and magazines; the more I read, the more I was intrigued. The idea that everything is up for sale now, that you can put a price on absolutely anything—that was of course part of the fascination. I also thought the question of individual autonomy and agency was raised here in an interesting way: should people have the right to sell parts of their bodies? Or is there something inherently unethical about the market exchange of organs?
The author’s description of his novel as “slow-burn” is vivid and accurate. The novel’s action moves between the past and the present, gradually illuminating the inner lives of the characters. Asked in an interview with author Matthew Rubinstein to describe the value of “slow reveals”, DeLeeuw says:
Some novels take place only in the present, and draw their suspense from forward motion. But the novels I like most have that element, but also have a counterpoint of revealing more and more about the characters’ pasts–their back stories. There’s the interplay of the current plot with the revelation of past information. As the reader learns more about the character’s past, the present-day action takes on more resonance. For me, this push-pull between past and present helps with the book’s rhythm. I like setting up propulsive present action scenes alternating with sections going back to the past. In this novel, describing Simon’s background enriches the protagonist’s character and makes the present-day tension more understandable.
In this interview, DeLeeuw lists several authors whose books influenced him while he was writing The Dismantling: Colin Harrison (Manhattan Nocturne), Jennifer Egan (Look at Me), Donna Tartt (The Secret History), and Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train). He doesn’t mention David Benioff’s World War II thriller City of Thieves, but I wonder if Benioff (co-creator of Game of Thrones and an accomplished screenwriter) was an influence also. DeLeeuw, who recently moved from New York to Los Angeles, is a screenwriter as well as a novelist.
A fascinating subplot in The Dismantling, and one that is very topical, has to do the permanent health damage suffered by ex-NFL players. At first, Lenny seems to be an unsympathetic character, but Simon’s — and the reader’s — heart eventually goes out to this broken man. Simon reflects on the legacy of Lenny’s short career as an offensive lineman:
The rest, though, he’d had to pay for himself, with no insurance company willing to assume the future costs of such a battered consumer . . . And this was only the toll on his body. The damage to his mind had surely been subtler, more insidious. Most likely there hadn’t been one or two big hits Lenny could point to and say that’s where it all started; most likely it was the accumulation, over a decade and a half, of the routine catastrophes of each snap, stretching back to whenever teenaged Lenny had discovered the power and joy of being both the unstoppable force and the immovable object.
Lenny’s friend and benefactor, Howard Crewes, is filled with remorse for an incident that took place during his own football career. He views helping Lenny as a way to atone for his past sins, just as Simon is trying to atone for his own moral failures. Maria, on the other hand, is seeking revenge. Maria’s actions lead the reader to think about retribution and whether it is ever justified.
A thriller, by definition, is plot-driven, usually with a crime at the center of the story, but what exactly is a literary thriller? Is it just a marketing term, or does it mean something more? I think it is a thriller for people who don’t typically read thrillers — people who are more interested in character development, social issues, intellectual ideas, and good writing than a fast-paced story. If that describes you, I recommend The Dismantling.
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