The Butcher's Boy
By Thomas Perry
Warning: Pretension and snobbery ahead. Proceed with caution.
The Onion's A.V. Club has a great column called The Box of Paperback Book Club where writer Keith Phipps reviews the 75 paperbacks he acquired via a cardboard box he found at a local thrift store. Most of the books are old trade paperbacks in the genre of science fiction, crime and adventure (some of which is X-rated). I thought the idea was ingenious. Reading and reviewing a box of random castoffs from a suburban household. From Heinlein to obscure curiosities of the era. All the books were published between 1960 and 1980 and I would imagine a great deal of it has gone out of print.
It was in the spirit of The Box of Paperbacks Book Club that I picked up The Butcher's Boy by Thomas Perry. An only slightly better than average crime novel about a nameless hit man evading both the mafia that wants him dead and the federal agents who have picked up his scent. The book was published in 1982 and obviously predates personal computers. It is strange to read a crime novel where characters cannot simply do their research online and have to leave contact numbers with people so that they can call each other later to compare information. No wonder the hit man has no trouble evading everyone. Aside from the dated references, it was about 15 pages into this book when I realized that Keith Phipps has his work cut out for him.
As Thomas Perry established his predictable characters, my mind began to wander from the story toward Phipps, bad fiction and the sordid world of mass-market paperbacks. What got me thinking was this: How many books like this exist? I'm talking supermarket check-out fiction. Slapdash stories that read like bad movies with worse actors. Predictable novels where the reader has things figured out a couple of hundred pages before the end of the book. Mass market paperbacks for housewives and commuters. Words for a TV generation. More bluntly: crap.
How much crap is published and where does it all go?
If there are 1000 publishing houses in America and Canada (An absurdly safe guess) each publishing an average of 1o mass-market, point-of-purchase novels per year (again, an absurdly low number), that equals 10,000 of these sorts of books hitting the (super)market each year! And I'm low-balling these numbers! I know these numbers are far larger than simple 10,000. Assume that these books have been published since the days of dime-store novels and we are talking of a staggering number of awful books.
Who buys this stuff? As the Perry's story introduced characters and sub-plots only to kill them off willy-nilly, I thought about the publishing industry a little more. Consider that when I worked in publishing (in the 1990s) the common statistic bandied about that was that 90% of all books were bought by 25% of the total population. Let's assume this is accurate, or at least close to accurate. That means 75% of all people (in North America of course) don't buy books, which presumably means they don't read many books either. Fine. That means that 25% are responsible for the purchase off ALL books from Charles Dickens, J.D. Salinger and Joseph Conrad to Dan Brown, Mitch Albom and Sophie Kinsella.
Given that a disproportionate amount of the publishing market is inundated with trade paperbacks a la The Butcher's Boy, we can assume that a large portion of that 25% are buying on the lower end of the quality scale. Which means that a great number of book buyers are buying their reading material from supermarkets, drugstores and gift shops.
This is highly depressing. As I continued to read about the exploits of Elizabeth Waring and her struggle to be respected in the man's world of the Justice Department, my mind descended even lower through the depths of the publishing industry.
Where does all this garbage go? As the nameless assassin wreaked havoc throughout Las Vegas and Cleveland and all points in between as if Perry was making the story up as he typed, I thought long and hard about where this stuff goes. Well, I can account for one copy of Thomas Perry's The Butcher's Boy (and I didn't pay for it, I assure you) but what about the rest? The rec rooms, garages and attics of this planet must be teeming with bad fiction, right? Well, there is probably a lot of these books around, substituting for missing coffee table legs, holding down important bills or killing innocent insects as they cross your kitchen counter. But not as many as you might think...
If a bookstore does not sell a book over the course of a year they can sell it back to the publishing house at list price. Many literary failures end their writing careers with their novels collecting dust in a publisher's warehouse, never even getting a sniff at a second printing. This is the fate of the vast majority of everything published. In the case of mass market paperbacks, which constitute the largest branch of non-educational publishing, the stores don't even have to return the book. They simply tear off the covers of the books and return those for the full cost of the book.
That's right. Mass-market paperbacks aren't even worth the paper they are printed on. That must be a humbling thought for authors who specialize in the genre. I wonder if anyone has ever bothered to ask Maeve Binchy her thoughts on that matter? Or Keith Phipps, for that matter. The majority of books are nothing more than a mediocre doorjamb or paperweight. You can learn everything you need to know about the book from its cover, which is, ironically, the most valuable part of the entire novel.
Which gets me back to The Butcher's Boy. Perry finished the novel with enough loose-ends and questions to fill a sequel (that was never written) and leaves the reader entirely unsatisfied. with the resolutions. But what more was I to expect from a novel like this? While this particular, full-intact copy of Thomas Perry's novel has somehow traveled to the farthest reaches of the planet where English novels can be found, it is still not worth the paper it is printed on. It's a good thing I have a coffee table in need of leveling. Methinks this book is going to find a second life after all.
As for me, I have reached my yearly quota of mass-market paperbacks. I cannot fathom the idea of making my way through 75 Thomas Perry novels in a row. It seems like an exercise in self-hate.
Good luck to you, Mr. Phipps. You have earned my respect and sympathy.