The Big Punch
Books that make their way onto the market via the Internet or on-demand publishing often fall into two categories: the all-too-rare gem and the unbelievable disaster. Former Baltimorean Louis Maistros' The Big Punch lands squarely in the latter category, weaving a pastiche of bad style, ridiculous gore, and empty religious perambulations with screaming italics, all-caps passages, and thudding one-sentence paragraphs.
The bulk of the tale takes place in the Baltimore of 1943 and concerns the horrific misadventures of narrator Jack Dellus. Given the time, Dellus should be fighting World War II, but his unexplained presence at home is only the most glaring in a litany of historical inaccuracies and anachronisms. (As The Big Punch opens, Dellus is impossibly walking through Sowebo en route from his Bolton Hill home to his North Avenue workplace.) In a diner he sights Maxa, introduced in a passage lifted straight from Mickey Spillane: "Her pouty red mouth sat delicately in creamy white skin beneath two scared, searching eyes. She was all covered in a black cloaky thing with a fur collar and trim." A man comes looking for Maxa; Dellus' reaction is to beat him to death. Fleeing the scene, he winds up in a Grande Guignol-style theater on St. Paul Street where he learns he has been framed for murder and, subsequently, is drawn into a ghoulish underworld.
A convoluted and conspiratorial plot takes form, involving sadistic sex cults, Siamese twins who move around like a spider, and Satan in the form of various orange items. Maistros throws in vague references to JFK, the infamous Black Dahlia murder case, and a lot of hokey spirituality for good measure. By the time real-life child murderer Albert Fish appears, the book has moved from what started as a bad Jim Thompson parody to a tasteless splatterfest pocked with juvenile necrophilia, dismembered babies, and a room wallpapered in human flesh.
But what really kills The Big Punch is Maistros' inability to focus on one subject and his zeal for piling reference on top of reference. For such a slim book, Punch bounces around from theme to theme, stretching each one so thin that none can be taken seriously. Is this a book about religion, as an earthly appearance of the Four Horsemen, the wise words of an old black spiritualist, and the not-so-wise musings of the anti-hero narrator suggest? Mixed couples being a prominent feature, is it about race? Is it about war, since a lot of details about Hitler, the military-industrial complex, and Hiroshima are thrown in at the end? Maistros' knack for cavalierly tossing around such weighty topics (and their accompanying symbolism) suggests that he doesn't concern really concern himself with any of them at all--they're just filler, futile bids to lend heft to a convoluted story line already bursting to the gills. For all the attempted heavy hitting, Maistros' Punch is strictly featherweight.