Jimmy is a 13-year-old prostitute. Blowjobs, handjobs, even a quick fuck, it’s all one to him. Money is money, and so long as the guy’s taken a shower within the last few days and doesn’t smell like he’s drunk or act like he’s high, Jimmy is confident in his ability to keep one step ahead of whatever man has paid for his body. Until he gets into the black truck. Until he meets Dwight.
A textbook monster, Dwight delights in causing pain, especially to the corrupted innocents that can be found on the streets at night. His wife knew of his perversions, knew he brought them into her home to sate his desires. She saw the rope he used to tie them up, saw the blood on the floor, the can of Crisco — and bemoaned that she had to know why he took it from the kitchen — and gave the hunting knife no more than a passing glance. She was one of the few controls over Dwight’s madness. So long as she and their daughter were in the house, Dwight had to be careful. But now she’s gone and there’s no one to hear the screams of the children in the night.
Father Richard Grebb is a pedophile. He fights his desires, goes to meetings, prays, turns to his god and prays for strength, but he’s a weak man. Sometimes the street children — the lovely boys, the wounded prostitutes and hustlers — call to him. He’ll take one home, give them a bath and food, and a place in his bed. One boy he has long been tempted by is Jimmy, and when Richard finds the boy in shock, hiding behind a car, he takes him home. Richard doesn’t know what causes the nightmares, he only knows that he wants to help. And when Jimmy comes to him with stories of missing children and a depraved monster, Richard sees a chance to be James’ hero.
Penance opens with the graphic rape of a 13-year-old boy. It uses a perjoritive word for a mentally disabled child. It talks lovingly of the sexual fantasies of Richard as he thinks of Jimmy. This book involves children ranging from ages 13-16 performing sexual acts with adults, and then there’s the beatings, stabbings, shooting, imprisonment, fisting, restraint, locking them in coffins and letting them lay in their own filth, choking, beating, and dismemberment. This is a book that feels like it takes a smug pleasure in being upsetting, as if it wants to provoke emotions. And for me, it certainly did.
Jimmy, like all of the street children, exists as an archetype rather than a character. All of the thoughts and emotions are surface level and limited to what will best move the story along. Replace him with any f the other kids and there would be no discernible change in the story. He serves more as an inciting element, a mcguffin for Dwight to obsess over.
Dwight, himself, is so beyond cartoonish that I really don’t know what to say about him. The story is told from every point of view — Jimmy, Richard, Dwight, six children, Jimmy’s mom, a neighbor — and Dwight’s stands out only because of how almost comedic he is. He’s not just disturbed, he’s craaaaazy. He’s not just a monster, he’s so vile and evil, with such a lack of dimension that I couldn’t take him seriously. As he started to talk to the voice in his head more and more, drooling and all but wearing a wig and dress, I just got tired.
The one character who stands out for me is Father Richard Grebb, who was 16 when he molested the 8-year-old boy he was babysitting. The story suggests he is struggling with himself, however, there is a lot of telling rather than showing, and only once in the story did I honestly believe Richard might show some depth of character, but it quickly passed.
With the three main characters failing to catch me, more weight fell on the story itself. And I’m sorry to say, it wasn’t able to carry the book. For all that there’s the set up of a serial kidnapper-rapist-murderer stalking Jimmy, the focus often drifted away. Each and every character had to be given their moments in the story, setting up their backgrounds, their suffering … and at times, it felt like the book was reveling in the misery porn. Each child was more wretched than the last, each had a more violent and vile life. Each had to meet Dwight and be beaten and locked away.
Even during those scenes, the writing was so much telling. Dwight, while dragging the first victim to his basement, recites a laundry list of what he’s bought and how he intends to use it, which turns it clinical and distant, and makes the victim’s reaction to it feel redundant and lacking impact. Or one child, taken into the bedroom where he’s been raped a few times before, reacts as though he’s seeing it for the first time by wondering if those piles of clothes are clean and complimenting the decor. Everywhere tension and horror could be built up was killed by the banal, indifferent delivery. Unless it was the sex scenes, or the scenes of Richard fantasizing about fucking Jimmy. There was a lot of showing in those scenes.
I found it the overal writing simplistic and reptitive. Instead of feeling horror, sympathy, or even disgust, I was given banal predictability and I found myself several times cringing from the almost loving, almost titilating way certain scenes were presented. To be honest, I think a book of this subject matter — the rape and torture of children, the struggles of a pedophile, and the depravity of the serial killer — needed a more subtle, nuanced hand. For me, this is a failed effort. The writing and the characterization simply isn’t strong enough to support a story of this nature. It was neither horrible enough to be horrifying, nor campy enough to be comedic, nor lurid enough to be sensational. All in all, this book left a cringy, bad taste in my mouth and I truly do not recommend it.