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A Good and Useful Hurt

February 12, 2015

I recently read a book about a topic I wouldn’t ordinarily expose myself to, with characters I wouldn’t have dreamed I could sympathize with, by an author I’ve never heard of, and quite enjoyed it.

My friend Miriam sent me Aric Davis’ A Good and Useful Hurt, warning me that it contains a serial killer. It does, and it centers on the lives of people who administer tattoos and piercings for a living. Those are things that have always made me shudder, although since I read the final chapter of A Visit from the Goon Squad and nodded yes throughout the final chapter, in which none of the young people have tattoos because they’ve seen what happens to the ones on older people, I’ve changed my attitude. I have an envelope full of temporary tattoos–all of one image–that I put on whenever I have to face particular people at work. It gives me courage, partly because it’s a slightly silly image, at least to me. At the ripe old age of fifty-something I finally understand why someone might want to have something permanently inked into her skin. As this book’s tattoo artist, Mike, says, “lots of people don’t until they find out they do.”

I found myself having to like Mike. As I’m meeting him, he opens up the shop because a customer is knocking and thinks to himself “What was ten minutes? The man needed them to be open.” And then I found myself liking his partner Lamar, who only dates tall, smart girls who dress to expose a lot of skin: “he liked them dressed the way they were because it was yet another way to throw middle fingers to the world.” They are unlikely characters for me to sympathize with, and yet the way they’re written makes me see why they act as they do.

Some of the patrons of Mike and Lamar’s tattoo parlor have a peculiar reason for wanting to have an image permanently inked into their skin—they’ve lost a loved one, and they want something to remember them by. The first time a person asks to have some of the ashes of his loved one mixed in with the ink, Mike is dubious, but he goes along with the request.

That’s when this story really gets started. Getting a tattoo with a dead person’s ashes in the ink allows these characters to dream about their dead loved ones as if they were still alive. When Mike himself ends up with a dead loved one, he goes to extraordinary lengths to get some of her ashes and make himself a tattoo. And that’s when he realizes that he also has to tattoo the ashes of everyone else her killer has killed onto himself, so the dead women in his dreams can help him find their killer.* He needs the help of a friend to get some of the ashes, a psychology professor at a local college who is so outwardly respectable that he keeps all his tattoos underneath where his clothes go. Telling the friend, Doc, why he needs the ashes is a wonderful moment, especially when Doc tells him he doesn’t believe the story but
“I do believe that you believe it. I like you well enough to try this myself, and if it works we’ll have something. If not, I’ll have a nice memorial to a person I loved very much, and a friend who desperately needs my help.”

The book is quite readable, partly due to the fact that much of it sounds like it’s being told, including phrases to which I would ordinarily react badly in print, like “the head had been bought at a street market during a period in Egypt where the gentry were quite desperate to own a mummy, and not so likely to care of its age.” In another book, the use of “where” and “of” in that sentence might make me cringe. In this one, it sounds like Mike thinking, and I like what he thinks, right down to where he concludes that displaying the mummified head “seems kind of shitty. These people busted their asses to be interred in as close to a natural living state as possible, and now they’re here for us to ogle.”

Mike’s choices if they find the serial killer are laid out for him by a series of questions from his friend Doc. He admits that the police wouldn’t believe “a word of this” and states his intention to shoot the guy, but Doc points out that there’s a chance he could shoot the wrong guy and go to prison, which would be “damning any chance to catch the man who is responsible.” What he proposes, instead, is for Mike to “make ink with all of their ashes in it and tattoo him with it.” It’s poetic justice, and it’s amazing to see how it turns out.

Have you ever thought of getting a tattoo? If you did, how did it turn out?

*Update: my friend who sent me the book points out that this is necromancy. She’s right. I must be getting used to reading about people talking to the dead, to the point where I don’t even notice, label, and vilify it properly anymore. Mea culpa.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. February 12, 2015 1:03 pm

    That does sound good. I’ve never wanted a tattoo because a) I’m afraid of needles and pain and b) it seems much too permanent. I can’t imagine what I’d want on my skin…forever…and not eventually regret it.

    • February 13, 2015 1:59 pm

      That’s always Ron’s point, too. Even an image that amuses me, that maybe I’m enjoying ironically, would be there as long as I live, and maybe I’d stop enjoying it and just be irritated by the permanent reminder.

  2. February 12, 2015 1:50 pm

    What an interesting plot for a story! I do have tattoos! Three of them, one I designed myself. I love them all and will probably get a new one in the next year or two. I feel the urge coming on 🙂

    • February 13, 2015 2:01 pm

      I would not have guessed that! I think part of the appeal is the potential for secrecy. Mike and Doc talk about the difference between a tattoo anyone can ask about and one that only your most intimate friends will ever see.

      • February 13, 2015 2:07 pm

        Full of surprises 🙂 All of mine are on my legs (ankle, calf, thigh) and are visible in summer when I wear skirts and shorts but they are easy to hide in the rare situations that I might not want to show them off. I’ve never thought about a private one though I understand the appeal.

        • February 13, 2015 2:10 pm

          Eleanor used to talk about getting an eye on her ankle, like the creepy Count Olaf in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Your ankle one isn’t an eye, right?

          • February 13, 2015 4:00 pm

            No, it’s a garden gnome peeking out from behind a dandelion 🙂 A creepy eye would be cool though!

  3. February 12, 2015 4:46 pm

    I have two tattoos and only stopped because (a) they are expensive and (b) if I didn’t stop after two, I might not have stopped til I was covered. I got one re-inked 10 years later because it had faded. I’ll probably re-ink it again, too.

    And I don’t understand the thinking that ew when you’re old your tattoo will be on saggy wrinkly skin. Guess what? That skin’s going to sag and wrinkle with or without ink.

    • February 13, 2015 2:02 pm

      True. I guess some people think the ink will emphasize the sagging or whatever, but I don’t see someone like you caring a bit for their opinion.

  4. February 13, 2015 2:49 pm

    To me, tattoos are a frightful insult to the skin – a site of chronic inflammation. They make me shudder, a reaction l try to disguise from my friends who have ink.

    • February 13, 2015 3:01 pm

      Have you seen any that are inflamed after a week or so?
      Growing up in southeast Missouri, I used to think that tattoos were something only people who rode motorcycles and hung out at bowling alleys would get. Now they’re more mainstream, and I’ve seen a few I admire…on other people.

  5. February 14, 2015 4:56 pm

    Isn’t it intriguing when a book gets us past a hang-up about things in books? I’ve had that sort of thing happen and it is all about the voice. Some voices just keep a person reading, no matter what. I have never had a real tattoo, but I often had stick-on transfers and so on when I was in my twenties. I couldn’t bear to be marked forever, but a bit of impermanent body art is just fine (I used to read tarot cards and somehow it went with the look then).

    • February 15, 2015 5:55 pm

      I agree, tattoos do seem to go with the look of someone who reads tarot cards. I think this is a slightly old-fashioned idea, though. I’ve been going to a water aerobics class, and been a little amused at how many of the 40ish-60ish ladies have small tattoos where you wouldn’t see them except peeking out of a swimming suit.

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