"Pay Phone" Book Review
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A piece of meat lay strewn in the center of the tub. Wet. Still a little bloody.
Written by Brandon Ford
2010, 272 pages, Fiction
Book released on March 10th, 2009
Reading the Amazon description of Pay Phone, I was immediately reminded of the 2002 movie Phone Booth (starring Colin Farrell).
January 1998. While a fierce winter falls upon the streets of New York City, a vicious killer is on the hunt for new blood. From his third floor apartment window, he watches, waits, using the pay phone across the street as the key to finding his victims. With his voice and his charms, he lures them to his door... ...and one by one they meet their fate. On a gray morning, he spies someone new. Someone different. Someone who reminds him of someone he knows. Someone very, very special. And he'll stop at nothing to be sure that special someone... is next. Whatever you do, don't answer the phone. It just might be for you.
It soon became apparent that the two were remarkably different and yet oddly similar in ways that extended past the use of a pay phone as a key part.
Using a pay phone as a major tool in any sort of media nowadays is a tough line to dance. From the get-go you are already dating your story, as pay phones are an endangered species due to fact that the cellphone is so prevalent in today's society. Wisely, author Brandon Ford puts a year, 1998, on page one of the novel.
In Pay Phone, Jake attracts potential victims by giving the pay phone across the street a ring and sweet-talking them up to his studio apartment. Aside from the obvious problem he has with, you know, the whole murdering people thing, Jake also has conversations with Susan — someone who very much encourages, even demands, him to kill people, and someone who is very much not there — literally. He has added stress coming from a social worker who is threatening to cut his unemployed ass off from government assistance if he doesn't start actively looking for a job.
However, things suddenly start looking up for Jake when Chelsea, a struggling actress, answers the pay phone one morning on her way to an audition, and the two hit it off splendidly. While Chelsea doesn't pay a visit to Jake's deathpartment that day, chance has her talking to him again a few days later and the two agree to meet in a public place. When Chelsea doesn't show up, Jake is pretty angry and rightfully so. So he decides to do what most insane people do; make her pay.
Pay Phone is an incredibly frustrating book, due to its bitter sweet nature. Brandon Ford is a good writer. For example, at first, when Chelsea falls hard for Jake, your first reaction is to call bullshit. How can someone get so wrapped in someone they have not only never met, but had very little interaction with, and that being over the phone? However, Ford subtly brings out Chelsea's insecurities and, as the book progresses, it becomes more believable that, yeah, she could start crushing on someone she has never met. Ford takes ample time developing both Jake and Chelsea into believable characters and that is a great strength because you really start to get to know them. But the problem becomes he never does anything with them. And that's what makes the book so infuriating, there's a lot of great writing, but it's hollow in substance.
The entire premise of the book is Jake zeroing in on Chelsea as The One. The girl that can change his life for the better, yet the two don't meet face to face until page 249…of a 272 page book. If this were a movie, it would be the equivalent of the last 10 minutes of the film. Now, this would work if it were a game of cat and mouse, but it's not. I don't know what it is. The book separates their two lives so completely that when the final showdown happens, it's underwhelming because of the lack of suspense leading up to it.
Jake calls Chelsea. Chelsea falls in love. Jake kills someone. Chelsea has problems with the director of the play she's working on. Jake kills someone. Chelsea goes to dinner with her dad. Jake kills someone. Chelsea and her roommate fight. Jake's mad at Chelsea for skipping their date. Jake and Chelsea meet. There's just not enough interaction between the two for the ending of the book to have any sort of power (even though, admittedly, the ending is quite ugly in that beautiful, uncomfortable way).
Hell, there's also a pretty damn decent sub-plot involving Chelsea's roommate that could be a separate book on its own, but peters out when it comes to a close. It seems a little out of place here, almost filler, but it's another nod to Ford's writing because it's an engrossing piece.
Pay Phone is not a terrible book because, as mentioned, Ford does have a good amount of skill with words. His makes his characters believable, he can be subtle or in-your-face equally well, he doesn't abuse the thesaurus, nor does he under-use it and the writing both keeps your attention and curiosity levels high. The book is a zippy read because you do want to know what happens next, and there is a definite pull to see what will happen to Chelsea — a character I rooted for more the more I read. Pay Phone just isn't a great book because the story lacks some depth. It's good writing forced into a lackluster plot, which is where it shares the aforementioned other similarity with Phone Booth. The writing saves both stories from being less than average, but the stories aren't strong enough to be anything more.
Brandon Ford has written two other novels, Crystal Bay and Splattered Beauty, and I'll probably be checking them out, as it will be interesting to watch his work progress.
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