Within the first two paragraphs of Gay Degani’s novel, What Came Before, the reader is thrust into a story that sizzles:
I can’t run. Can’t breathe. Dry kernels blow through my lips. I wake up sweating, legs tangled in sheets, eyes gritty, mouth dry, my brain jammed together like frozen broccoli. I rattle my head and the nightmare dissipates, leaving me alone in my bed at the Tiki Palms. It was 94 degrees in our Hollywood bungalow when my mother opened the door to our O’Keefe and Merritt oven, turned on the gas, and stuck in her head. If she’d had a car, she could’ve driven down Sunset Boulevard through cooling hills and walked into the ocean. Maybe then she would’ve changed her mind. I was four.
What Came Before is a page-turner if ever there was one. Replete with rich, individualized characters, the book moves at jet speed. One bomb drops after another, embroiling the reader in a race to discover what will happen next.
With the action, however, we get many literary flourishes such as these:
What binds two people together? Lips? Fingertips? Ropes? Chains? Sometimes memory is the strongest tie. The old man remembers her in patches of clarity, like catching a shimmer of an aquamarine sky behind ragged clouds. Her eyes were that color. He lifts his hand, ready to place it gently on her hair, stroke her milky skin with his thumb, but she’s not there.
My first sensation is a long sweet pull through dark water. Then I extend again, another pull, and whoosh, I break the surface where I meet the snouts of alligators. Ash glitters on moss. It’s muggy hot.
My swamp’s been hit by a class 5 hurricane. I’m clinging to the Kon Tiki monolith in front of my building, my body pulled thin and ragged like a wind-whipped flag.
Professor Abbie Palmer, still reeling from her “Bikini Girl” mother’s suicide so many years ago, abandons her family to set up a separate, more creative existence in The Tiki Palms Apartments. Soon she’s plunged into a mystery full of intrigue and danger. There are fires and deaths and epiphanies throughout, enough to keep the reader hanging on every word.
What Came Before is a tight yet robust story, littered with questions, both literally and figuratively. The dialogue rings true, rippling with Gatling gun intensity. We are faced with dilemmas about the conflict at hand, as well as issues of racial strife and marginalized people. In short order, the cast in Degani’s book become our friends and foes, people we know as well as our best friends.
Reading the book is like binge-watching your favorite cable television show. It’s a joyous ride from start to finish, and once it’s over we are left greedily wanting more.
What Came Before, by Gay Degani. Every Day Novels. $28.95, hardcover.
Len Kuntz is an editor at the online literary magazine Metazen and the author of The Dark Sunshine from Connotation Press. His next story collection, I’m Not Supposed To Be Here And Neither Are You is forthcoming from Aqueous Books in January.