A Good and Useful Hurt
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.