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review: fiction

Ken Finkleman photographed in Toronto on Aug. 25, 2010.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

There's a brutal murder at the heart of Ken Finkleman's Noah's Turn, but this is a crime novel in the same way that Finkleman's landmark CBC series The Newsroom was a sitcom: not so much.

Noah's Turn is a character study, and what a character Noah Douglas is. He's neither likeable nor sympathetic. He's a drunk with a fondness for narcotics. He's drowning in self-pity and consumed with jealousy. If the title hadn't already been taken, Finkleman might well have called this book Despicable Me.

One of the successes of this darkly comic novel is that despite Noah's failures as a human being, we're more than happy to stick around and see what happens to him. It's not unlike the fascination we had for The Newsroom's George, a Larry David-like misanthrope. (Finkleman was doing Larry David before Larry David was doing Larry David.)

Noah, a television writer for a run-of-the-mill cop show, inadvertently sums up during one of his many ruminations what it is about him that keeps us turning the pages: "It was the bad guys who caught Noah's eye. The irredeemable bad guys. The psychos. And Noah was one. They had the sexy parts. Noah had always enjoyed the bad guys. … What Noah now knew was that in real life they were not necessarily madmen or aberrations in the midst of normality." Noah, despite spending much of the book in an alcohol-induced haze, does have his moments of self-awareness.

His interest in others is measured by what they can do for him. He visits his dying aunt in the hopes she'll leave him in his will. He befriends her caregiver for sex and leftover Percocets. His greatest performance as a hypocrite is his feigned friendship with Patrick McEwen, an arrogant worm of a creative-writing teacher whose self-absorption gives Noah's a run for its money. McEwen's literary success, and a rave review of his new novel in The New York Times, drives the jealous Noah to the brink of madness.

Noah, who is ashamed that he's nothing more than a writer for television, yearns for the kind of respect McEwen is receiving. (Even though the book's setting is never spelled out, a writer struggling for attention because his work is not "literary" enough is as Canadian a theme as any.) If he can't get that respect, perhaps denying McEwen the chance to enjoy his will have to do. Noah, his bitterness intensified when McEwen fails to recommend to his editors an outline for a novel Noah wants to write, finally snaps, committing an act he'd have never thought himself capable of.

The incident comes at the halfway point in the novel, and a loss of tension ensues as a mostly drunk Noah drifts in and out of consciousness, pondering the implications of his act.

This is a slim novel - in words and, at times, execution. What has served Finkleman so well at script-writing - communicating volumes with an economy of language - sometimes works against him as a novelist. When one of McEwen's former creative-writing students, a young woman Noah has been desperate to get into the sack, gives Noah a story in which the principal character murders a colleague in a jealous rage, the reader thinks, hello, this can't be good. Has she hit upon this idea by chance, or does she really know something? If she does, what will Noah do? Maybe, in a conventional crime thriller, the inherent potential in this plot turn would be realized, but Finkleman doesn't take it anywhere. Clearly, he doesn't want to. The focus here is not plot, but inner turmoil and existential angst.

There's that in abundance, as well as considerable commentary on the passing cultural scene, much of it very funny. Finkleman has captured the literary community and its inhabitants well. The rivalries, the pettiness, the two-facedness, the inflated sense of importance, the navel-gazing. It's all here. As is the madness of trying to please editors. McEwen's wife, at one point, engages Noah to write a blog about television because he's outrageous and outspoken. When he delivers exactly what's been asked of him, she writes: "We all want it to be tough-minded but we're still journalists and we need that balance. Fairness is not a dirty word. No one wants you to pull any punches - that's not why we hired you - but it's a hair too edgy for the brand."

All of us, at that point, would be as driven to drink as Noah. If you're looking for a motive for murder, you could do worse.

Linwood Barclay's latest novel, Never Look Away, will be released in paperback in September.