(Reviewed by Guy Savage JAN 11, 2009)
“Newspapers, see, are a gateway to fame, an institution dedicated to chronicling the feats of extraordinary people who define our times. But the truth is that very few of us have something worthwhile to contribute. Every last one of us could just as easily blow off our heads tonight and leave nothing behind except a headstone that nobody visits, and the world will keep on turning and burning without as much as a hiccup. That thought—that you’ve done all you can do, and even that wasn’t even worth the effort—is paralyzing for more than a few. So the shot-at-glory-before-death I peddle is enough to make some people jump up and dance. The kicker here is I can’t stand the thought of possessing anything that even remotely stinks of significance. I’m content with my emotionally, financially, matter-of-factly marginal existence. If I were to suddenly matter… Well, I’d rather not.”
After reading a number of novels in 2008 that seemed determined to impress with the ultra-suave-coolness of their multi-talented and brilliant main characters, it’s nothing less than strangely refreshing to come across Bernard Cockburn, the jaded, cynical, self-destructive protagonist of Occupational Hazards, a gritty first novel from Jonathan Segura. Cockburn--who despite the fact he’s only in his early thirties--is well on his way to being a piece of human wreckage as he careens from booze to Cocaine to downers in an explosive literary performance reminiscent of Johnny played by David Thwelis in Mike Leigh’s cult film Naked. While in Naked, Johnny is, not surprisingly, unemployed and therefore free to harass people at will, the astonishing thing about Cockburn is that he is employed, and gainfully so as a beat reporter for the Omaha Weekly News-Telegraph.
In this fast-paced newspaper noir, Cockburn lives in a slum, works for a third-rate paper and cohabits with a “noncommittal fuckup” named Allison. While this is by no means an enviable life, it’s a holding pattern for the nihilistic Cockburn--a man with a marginal existence who wants to avoid the pressures and lures of ambition, and yet who barely manages to hang on to steady employment. Cockburn self-mockingly acknowledges he has two things in his favor: his shoes are clean and his ties “don’t fucking suck.” A few pages into the novel, it becomes clear that Cockburn is teetering on an abyss, but just what will send him over the edge? Booze, downers, cocaine, or the specter of domesticity--well, there are plenty of possibilities.
In spite of the booze and the drugs, there’s one uncompromising area in Cockburn’s life--he’s a natural-born crime reporter and the one thing he still cares about is his journalistic integrity. Cockburn (and he constantly reminds people that it’s pronounced Co-burn) acknowledges:
“Gimme a scent, let me loose and I’ll come back at the end of the day with a story hanging limply from my clenched chompers. Or, rather there was a time. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say I think I’ve still got it in me. I’d be further remiss if I didn’t say I’d like to find out whence that part of me’s hidden itself.”
Perhaps this is why Cockburn stubbornly, flippantly and adroitly resists the sort of pastiche articles his boss, Manny doggedly assigns to him. Manny wants Cockburn to cover “big deal public works boondoogle” stories and “developer profiles” which are little more than transparent advertisements. To Cockburn, these are all “bullshit” stories that are not only as boring as hell but serve as cheerleading puff pieces for local big-wigs. According to Manny, Cockburn is “perfectly happy skulking around crime scenes” and producing “seedy shit.” When the novel begins, Manny wants Cockburn to cover downtown Omaha’s redevelopment project, but Cockburn sniffs a rather different story on the same subject. Talking to locals confirms Cockburn’s suspicions. As longtime slum resident, Leroy the barber notes: “Any time white folks go poking around some dump…they’re trying to score dope and pussy or they wanna tear it down and put in a McDonalds.” Pursuing rumors that the activities of a citizen’s group have morphed into vigilantism, Cockburn rapidly uncovers a web of deceit, blackmail and murder.
In the world of noir, newspaper reporters come second only to private detectives when ranking skepticism and jaded world-weariness. As a noir protagonist, Cockburn is, at first appearances, not an easy person to like. Measuring the worth of his bleak relationship with his girlfriend, Allison by its blowjob potential, he’s insensitive (and that’s putting it mildly), abrasive and acerbic. Cockburn is far more comfortable mingling with seedy street life and scoring drugs in the slums of Omaha than he is "investing" in a career. Perhaps he takes this whole gentrification business personally, and that’s no surprise. While Cockburn digs around for a story on the vigilantes involved in the gentrification of the old neighborhoods, Allison tries to gentrify Cockburn through a forced introduction to parenthood and a lease on a shiny new apartment fully loaded with the additional lure of an icemaker.
Narrated by the self-loathing Cockburn as he copes with hangovers caused by various substances, the novel’s bitter, nasty black humour argues that while Cockburn is, in some sense, a walking disaster, he’s a far more decent human being than his behavior initially indicates. Since Cockburn seems to have missed the mandatory PC lessons, his frank, crude and blisteringly honest narration is not for all tastes. This is a bold, uncompromising first novel that succeeds so well because Cockburn is a morally complex character whose principles--largely absent though they may be--trump the morality of the upstanding citizenry of Omaha. Segura isn’t likely to get the key to the city of Omaha for writing this novel. It’s a tourist board nightmare in its portrayal of the seamy side of Omaha. At the novel’s conclusion, the disenfranchised slumdwellers of Omaha seem positively squeaky clean next to the do-gooders, the so-called decent citizens and the slimy perverts who push their agenda through "good" works and "noble" causes, and that comparison makes Cockburn, an antihero of sorts, or at least a man with very little to lose. And those with little to lose make dangerous, unpredictable adversaries.
- Amazon readers rating: from 4 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Occupational Hazards at Simon & Schuster
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Occupational Hazards (July 2008)
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- Official website for Jonathan Segura
- MostlyFiction.com interview with Jonathan sSegura
- News Vine interview with Jonathan Segura
- Washington Post review for Occupational Hazards
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About the Author:
Jonathan Segura is the deputy reviews editor for Publishers Weekly and holds a master's degree in fiction writing from Columbia University. He lives in Brooklyn.