The human inside me

Calling Mr King by Ronald De Fao. (2011) Translation tragedy: it’s not available in French.

Calling Mr King is an quirky little book. We are in the mind of an American hit man who is based in Great Britain. He works for an entity called The Firm. When he receives a phone call for Mr King, he knows it’s time to report to the headquarters and take instructions for his next job. When the book opens, he’s back home in London after a rather messed up contract in Paris. He knows he did a poor job and that he probably raised suspicion in his bosses’ head. The truth is: he’s lost his concentration and his magic touch. Do you think he’s actually growing a conscience? Not at all!

I’d been getting a little tired of the steady work, one job after another. No real chance to rest. Here I was traveling from city to city, country to country, and I never had time just to relax and maybe see a few of the sights. That’s the problem with being too good at your job, too talented—you’re always in demand. And it’s hard to say no. It’s not very professional. And it’s also not very wise. You don’t want to be labeled “difficult” or “unreliable” in this business. No, not in this business. It just isn’t healthy. There weren’t too many challenges anymore. I had to admit it. I had gotten so good at my work that the job was becoming somewhat routine, maybe even a little stale. The targets and locations were different but the job was still the same. And things always ended the same way. They had to. I need a bit of a rest, I thought, I have to slow down. I wonder how they’d feel about a brief vacation.

Sounds like the hit man has a little meltdown and I dare say, he’s a little burnt out. He’d like to rest but while he’s enjoying a few R&R days in London, he’s called to another job. This time, the mark is a man who lives in his country house in Derbyshire. The trip out of town leads our hit man to take an interest in Georgian houses, imagining living in one someday. He gets the work done in Derbyshire but he took risks and The Firm sends him back on vacation in New York, before sending him on a delicate job in Barcelona. We follow him in the cities, we get to know him, his present and his past. He speaks about his job as an ordinary occupation.

But the truth is that a man in my profession can experience crummy working conditions too. He can get fed up with bosses just like anybody else. When you come down to it, all of us, in whatever line of business, have to work with or report to some bastard.

Dear God, you’d think he’s about to go on strike. He knows that what he does as a living is weird but he constantly refers to it because it’s been his quotidian for so long. He kills, that’s all he does. He knows that it messes up with his life and his head. Having this time for himself, time to push the “pause” button on his professional life gives him a chance to think about his choice of career. He knows his life is not normal. His profession prevents him from having a normal life and he’s painfully aware of it. (Jesus, I also thought, what memories I have. Other people remember girlfriends and great dates, promotions, terrific vacations, first love, and all that crap. I remember dead bodies in cities around the world.)

This is unsettling especially because the reader grows rather fond of him. We tend to forget that he’s not a regular Joe, that the hit man is ingrained in him. See how he reacts when he learns that his bosses don’t plan on giving him a weapon during his stay in the Big Apple!

I protested. They couldn’t leave me defenseless. I was always on call. You never knew. “All right, all right,” the boss said. “I suppose they’re like condoms with you people. You don’t know if you’ll use them but it’s best to have one or two just in case.” That wasn’t exactly the way I thought of it, but I agreed with the general idea.

In addition to the insight into his mind, it also gives you an idea of De Fao’s funny style. The phone calls he receives tether him to The Firm. A phone cord as an umbilical cord. And now, he’d like to cut it. But how?

We follow our character in London, New York and Barcelona and through his growing angst. He wonders who he really is, after spending years abroad, after years in thisd business.

I knew that I confused people any way I was. I mean, I wasn’t English, but I wasn’t really American anymore either. I think this dawned upon me one day about a year or so ago when I was buying a Tube ticket. In telling the man in the booth my destination, I suddenly realized I was speaking with an English accent.

The confusion the character feels about his identity shows in the random use of British words like bloody, chap, mate

Our man’s stay in New York City is also an opportunity for him to go back to his hometown, upstate New York. He realizes everything has changed, that nobody knows him anymore and this sorts of erases his existence. He doesn’t have a real existence in London either, as his profession requires that he remains inconspicuous. His visit to his hometown opens the door to memories of his childhood and his family. His father was a sicko who was a gun fanatic, always shooting at targets, still or alive and his mother was obsessed with housework and “was a real churchgoer. And in her handbag she kept a whole collection of cards that had pictures of Jesus and Mary, something like baseball trading cards for the devout.” As he deadpans his parents were Two strange people, one sicker than the other—a woman who wanted everything clean, and a man who wanted everything dead.

Seen from this perspective, no wonder he’s emotionally challenged and he grew up as well as he could. Now he muses, as he sees a dad playing with his son and a kite:

I wondered how I would have turned out had my old man taken me kite flying instead of animal hunting. I wondered if I would have grown up to be a kite flier instead of a professional killer. Yes, I wondered what I would be like today had my father been a kite-flying dad instead of a gun-happy son of a bitch. Then again, I hadn’t followed in his footsteps completely. I knew my guns, of course, but I really wasn’t a mean bastard at heart. Yes, I thought, except for my somewhat destructive occupation, I was really a pretty decent sort.

Well, a decent sort who kills in cold blood. His moral compass is still not wired as ours.

Calling Mr King could be renamed The Blues of the Hit Man. Except that it’s much more than that. The other fantastic aspect of this odd book is the character’s dive into architecture and art. When in London, he started to read books about Georgian houses. On leave in New York, he resumes his study and hangs out in bookstores, public libraries and museums. This leads to hilarious moments, like here when he goes to a book shop and an employee comes to talk to him.

It was another one of those knowledgeable clerks I seemed to be attracting lately. Now that I was growing vaguely intellectual, I was becoming a kind of nerd magnet. Christ. Then again, I tried to sympathize. The world had grown so stupid that people with brains were desperate for brainy company.

He discovers the pleasure of studying, of reading, of finding solace in books. He’s supposed to stay put in his hotel but he can’t. And he starts carrying his books around.

I found it dull to stay in my hotel room and read, so I took my books out with me each day. I took them with me the way I took along my gun. You might say the gun and the books were traveling companions.

Books are becoming equal to his gun, which is a pretty important shift in his mind set. He never goes out without his gun, even if it means he has to wear a jacket thick enough to conceal his holster in the smoldering heat of a New York summer. And now, he can’t go out without his books. He reads in parks, in cafés, in restaurants. New practicalities take precedence over his meal choices.

Now that I had become a reader I usually ordered food I could eat with just a fork, leaving my other hand free to hold a book or turn the pages.

Does that ring a bell to you? It definitely does to me. One of the great joys of the kindle: it remains open on the table. His journey towards culture began with an interest in Georgian houses. One read leading to the other, he visits the Met again and again and the reader is privy to his candid thoughts about paintings.

The paintings were more my cup of tea. Some of them, anyway. They certainly had enough, so you were bound to find at least a few things you liked. I wasn’t big on the Italian stuff, the religious pictures in general, with all these saints and angels flying about. They were usually flying about Jesus Christ, who was usually dying, dead, or coming back from the dead. Who in hell ever dreamed up this hammy character? Christ, give me a break. All I know is if you kill somebody he stays killed. I’d like to see old Jesus survive a few shots from a .45.

Again, we’re brought back to his actual self, a killer. His exploration of Barcelona and his new acquaintance with Gaudi’s architecture brought funny moments and I laughed out loud more than once. (This Gaudí character definitely had a thing for snakes, serpents, and assorted reptiles. And he was, of course, a total nut for tiles.) He’s so funny in his naïve comments about people and sights that I can forgive him for calling us French “frogs” all the time. “Go choke on a snail” is what he’d like to yell at a Parisian taxi driver. His enthusiasm for art is contagious. His newfound thirst for knowledge and culture is endearing. Just when you warm up to him a little too much, he says something that reminds you who he is and what he does for a living. Like here, when he plays tourist in Barcelona:

I approached the Fuster. It was less of a production than the Arabian wedding cake. The guide said that it recalled a Venetian mansion. I myself couldn’t say. I had never been to Venice. I was supposed to go there on a job once, but the mark ended up in Rome instead.

I loved Calling Mr King, it will probably make my end-of-year list. It’s one of those books you’d like to buy for all your friends.  It made me laugh and think. I loved the promenades in Paris, London, New York and Barcelona. The sense of place is incredible, I felt like I was exploring the cities with the character. It’s well-written, in a witty style with perfect description of the cities, and insights about the hit man. It rang true.

A big thank you to Guy for recommending Calling Mr King. You can find his review here. Sadly, this little gem of a book is not available in French. Hence a billet filled under Translation Tragedy. However, for French readers who enjoyed the ring of Calling Mr King, I’ll recommend Nager sans se mouiller by Carlos Salem. I think it has the same vibe. That’s another Translation Tragedy because it’s not available in English.

  1. May 31, 2016 at 1:44 pm

    Totally totally my kind of book – I’ve made a note of it and will search for it once all this madness is over!

    Like

    • May 31, 2016 at 8:11 pm

      You’d like it. Guy has a knack for unearthing books like this.

      Like

  2. May 31, 2016 at 5:51 pm

    It does sound fun, and I do recognise the fork situation. I missed Guy’s review of this back in the day. I’m not a huge fan of hit man stories (so common in Hollywood for some reason) but this does sound good.

    On an only tangentially related note, the classic movie plot where the murky villainous agency decides to kill their best hit man because he decided to retire never made sense to me. It sets a terrible precedent for other hit men employees who might wonder about their own futures, and it means profoundly antagonising literally the best professional killer you know. It’s a really stupid idea, but a really common plot device.

    Like

    • May 31, 2016 at 8:17 pm

      I read during lunch break to unwind. I’m mastering in cooking fork-only lunches.

      I think you’d like this one, just like you’d like the Carlos Salem. The hit man part makes the architecture/art discovery spicy and the architecture/tourist part makes the book stand out among “hit men stories”. Really, it’s unique.

      I disagree a bit with you on the last part. If I were “The Firm”, I’d make sure that my employees don’t know each other. So if one disapears, the others won’t know him and the one who kills him doesn’t even know he’s putting out a colleague. Really, it’s not a business where you want to have a work council, unions, a health & security committee and lunch break areas.

      Like

  3. May 31, 2016 at 10:23 pm

    I loved this one, Emma, and it made my best-of list too. It was quirky, funny, unusual, deeper and richer and expected and curiously touching (given the main character’s profession)

    Like

    • June 2, 2016 at 8:54 pm

      I totally agree with you. It was touching, you have the feeling the guy ended up in that profession by mistake and because he was trained to shoot to perfection. I liked being in his head, even if he’s a killer.

      Like

  4. June 2, 2016 at 7:47 pm

    Great review, Emma – it really whets the appetite for the book. The quotes give a good flavour of the humour in the narrative voice, especially the passage about the paintings – I can just imagine it playing out in my head. A nice find.

    Like

    • June 2, 2016 at 8:56 pm

      It is a great read Jacqui. The humour holds everything together: it prevents the book from being only crime fiction and to fall into mawkishness when he discovers art. It feels real, even with the odd context.

      Like

  1. November 29, 2016 at 1:12 am
  2. January 7, 2017 at 7:13 pm

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