The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning

By Hallgrimur Helgason

“Icelandic names are like Scud missiles. Their trail lingers in the air long after they’ve reached their target. Still these guys have my respect. Being a crime writer in the land of no murders can’t be easy. It seems you need the creative powers of a genius just to be able to provide  your murderer with a gun. I close my ears, but keep my Friendly smile on, as the two barflies go on about their country, trying hard to convince the clergyman that it’s no Sunday school”

– The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning, pg. 50

Globalization is such a broad and amorphous phenomenon that I find it puzzling when people either condemn it or enthusiastically support it outright. It’s like being either for or against something like food. Yes, some food is delicious, much of it merely edible and some of it downright disgusting. And globalization is the same; it has its good sides and bad sides.

The way The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning comes into this assessment is that it represents both sides of the globalization coin. It is product of the good globalization but, with some significant exceptions, is immersed in globalization’s darker realities.

First, the good: It is an English-language novel written by an Icelandic writer whose main character is a Croatian war veteran and contract killer. Tomislav Bokšić, who becomes Tom Boksic in the book’s second sentence, further streamlined to Toxic in the third, finds himself compelled to pass through many of the circles of globalization’s nether regions – from New York’s international mafia underworld to the barren life of Iceland’s exploited Eastern European labor.

Having gone on the run for killing an FBI agent and then assuming the identity of  American evangelist Father Friendly, whose life he snuffs out in an airport bathroom, you could add the globalized world of religious missionaries to Toxic’s highly international resume.

The book’s author, Hallgrimur Helgason, is already a successful novelist in Europe. The Hitman’s Guide is his first novel written originally in English, though his translation of it back into his native language came out in 2008 and even its German translation became a bestseller back in 2010.  The novel’s English leans heavily toward American English, in fact more heavily than the English of many American writers does.

The book is full of satirical naming and labeling. Toxic gives Icelandic names phonetic rewrites so that Guðmundur becomes Goodmoondoor, Sigríður becomes Sickreader, and so on. His mafia boss in New York gets nicknamed Fingerlicker because of the way he licks his fingers after eating. Toxic also categorizes women according to how many days it would take him to begin fantasizing about them if they were the only women in his platoon that was stuck in the mountains for a month. The daughter of Father Friendly’s unsuspecting Icelandic hosts is a Day 1 while a gay fellow soldier he served with in the war is a Day 156.

Between all the manic classifications and sentences bristling with black, self-deprecating humor I began to wonder whether The Hitman’s Guide wasn’t written by Sam Lipsyte under an Icelandic pseudonym to avoid getting punched out by one of his Croatian or Serbian neighbors.

One area where the novel is more American than the Americans is the Tarantino-esque evocation of American pop culture. Brands, TV shows, celebrities are as much a part of Toxic’s vision of the world as his experiences fighting the Serbs during the war. When Toxic describes “the Icelandic look” as “a cross between Julia Stiles and Virginia Madsen I pictured precisely nothing since I have no idea who those women are.

Even though the pop culture references go a bit over the top (intentionally, I think) the sheer energy of the prose thrusts the book forward. Add the stark contrast between the extreme situations Toxic finds himself in and the sedate Nordic setting in which they take place and Helgason has created a true 21st century odyssey where the warrior hero goes from the field of battle to the suburbs of a land without guns.

Beneath all the frantic dark comedy some serious issues get brought up, suppressed memories from the war, allowing the metamorphosis of Tomislav Bokšić to Toxic and on to Father Friendly (as well as various identities tacked on in between) to continue to yet another identity, one which may represent a more significant and meaningful change of character.

Photos – Cover and Hallgrimur Helgason courtesy of Amazon Crossing

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Categories: Book Reviews

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2 Comments on “The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning”

  1. 06/03/2012 at 8:56 pm #

    Interesting review. This is one of those books that I have picked up and looked at several times but don’t think I would get on with in terms of style.

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