Jason Ginaff is a twentysomething hacker who does deep background checks on job candidates for corporations. In his spare time, he uses his skills to search for the father he never knew. Success brings trouble in the form of Rudy Alamein. Rudy’s father recently died in prison, and Rudy wants to kill the man who put him there, the former cop who happens to be Jason’s father. The “black teeth” of the title refers to a crude prison tattoo that Rudy has had inscribed on his hand in tribute to his father – and that Jason pens onto his own in an attempt to weasel his way into Rudy’s confidence and stop him before he can carry out his mission.
Black Teeth is the second novel by Melburnian Zane Lovitt. His first, The Midnight Promise, was named best first crime fiction at the 2013 Ned Kelly Awards.
Jason, who narrates the novel in a self-consciously hardboiled manner, tells us he is prone to anxiety attacks. He may well induce the same in readers who haven’t a clue what he’s talking about when he throws around arcane words such as “kek” (which Google reveals is like “lol” for members of a faction on the online gaming site World of Warcraft), and he does it a lot (“rainbow tables”, “SJW”, “skeksi” etc etc). But while the likes of William Gibson and Anthony Burgess manage to use jargon or slang or even create new languages while granting the reader fluency in them, Black Teeth feels like you’re in the club, or you’re not.
All the showing off begins to feel, as Jason might say, “norp-tier as fuck” (Google NORP). That expression, incidentally, appears on the same page as “literally giggling”. What are we supposed to picture when we’re told a woman has a “beguiling smirk” that indicates “an innate positivity”? How can a place be both “pimped and plushy” and “epic and glassy so you feel like you can breathe”? When someone “lols outright”, you wonder: is there any other way to lol?
Lovitt amps up the atmosphere with random grotesquery (a table blanketed in nail clippings) and red herrings: he tells us an alleyway has dark places for serial killers to hide and then produces none; an “ominous red door” leads nowhere particularly ominous. Worse, the new-found father–son relationship that drives the plot doesn’t seem to mean all that much to either party. Did the English language really have to die for this? Kek. CG
Text, 368pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 9, 2016 as "Zane Lovitt, Black Teeth". Subscribe here.