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||Auguat 2 2009
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Each degenerate overcomes incredible obstacles working in a restaurant named City Café until a psychotic co-worker changes everything about their lives.
An alcoholic writer, a self-destructive teen, a burnt-out waitress, an abused young wife, a good-natured cook, a tormented serial killer, and the cop unwittingly assigned to stop him. Marred with addictions, poverty, and personal loss, each degenerate overcomes incredible obstacles and finds his or her own salvation working in a restaurant named City Café. They form new friendships and relationships, and in a short time turn their lives around — until Tommy Fielding is hired. Seeming innocent at first, Tommy is a schizophrenic who believes murder will ensure for him an existence of perfect happiness. What happens next places the group in grave danger and leads them into a horror that will change everything about their lives.
The last remnants of sunlight drained into the horizon as Tommy prowled toward a large, ranch-style home snuggled behind preened landscaping. Sweat leaked from his brow, rolled down his cheeks, and soaked into the collar of his maroon T-shirt. Excitement prickled his skin.
A decade had passed since he’d left St. Anne’s Orphanage and School for Boys and he’d come back to Philadelphia to fulfill his destiny. Jeffery promised what he was about to do would give him the power of God. Jeffery assured him the power of God would bring mommy back. If mommy came back, she would take care of him. Make everything in his life perfect again.
Jeffery lived in Tommy’s mind. Jeffery was a good dog.
Tommy squatted behind a thick row of manicured privet and breathed deeply. Mossy turf, the cool night air, and a hint of a woman’s perfume invaded his nostrils. His belly swooned. He could barely contain himself. Everything was about to change.
He crawled close to the garage and stole a quick glance up the paved driveway. Two women were sitting on lawn chairs with their backs to him. A yellow citronella candle burned on a small, plastic table. Laughter ran festive through the air as the women sipped wine and talked.
With this kill, you will become stronger! Jeffery said inside Tommy’s head. You will gain power!
Tommy wrung his hands. Calluses from years of washing hot dishes in a greasy, truck stop kitchen had roughened his fingers. He hopped up, stepped around a puddle of water collected from the recent rain, and moved within striking range.
Crickets shut off their chirr.
“...and my Sarah is so stubborn,” one of the women was saying. “I keep telling her not to crayon on the wall and then I come into her room and she’s got a green dinosaur drawn across the entire side.”
The other woman laughingly replied; “I have that same problem with Jess.”
She raised her wine glass and bumped it against her lip.
“Oh, shoot!” she said, and brushed her front. “Look at me. And after only half a glass.”
“I’ll get a towel.”
Tommy didn’t expect the woman to stand up and turn around so quickly. Their eyes locked, and for a moment, seconds gelled and seemed to stretch into a queer slowdown of time. His thoughts flashed backward in memory to the baby birds. The ones he’d found as a child under the eave at St. Anne’s. The ones he’d crushed with his bare hands.
He lunged and arched out, grabbed under the woman’s chin, and spun her head with a quick, savage twist that crunched bones. Her head lolled and she collapsed.
The other woman screamed and leapt from her seat. She stumbled backward, flailing her arms to keep balance. He charged after, tackled her, and smashed his fist into her face, flattening her nose, then grabbed her throat and squeezed. Her eyes bulged. The tendons in her face strained into lines.
The woman’s mouth worked in raspy screams as she clawed savagely at his face, his hair, and the air. Little by little, she weakened. Finally, her muscles relaxed, her eyelids slid halfway down and her pupils filmed over.
She was dead.
He let go and her mass slumped to the asphalt.
He breathed heavily, relishing what he’d done. A feeling of omnipotent power surged through him. Sensation more furious than orgasm.
Power will bring mommy back! Jeffery said. Killing gives you power!
“Yes,” Tommy agreed.
He checked up and down the driveway to make certain no one was watching, and then dragged the two women into the moon-shadow cast by the garage. He stood a moment admiring the flaccid bodies and then stooped to his knees.
Do it! Jeffery urged. You’ve earned this session!
Tommy’s whole body tingled as he withdrew the ten-inch chef’s knife he’d stolen from the truck stop, sank it into the woman’s abdomen, and started his play.
Crickets resumed their chirr.
Reviewed by Frederick Fuller, March 20, 2011
I was raised in the Chicago area in the 1950s when Riverview Amusement Park was in full swing. They had a roller coaster called The Bobbs that was made of wood. It shook as if I were sitting on an erupting volcano. At one point it headed straight for a 12x12 solid beam, which I was sure would decapitate me. Just before my head was to leave my body, the car dropped like a lead cannon ball, leaving my stomach to confront the beam. As I read Ostroff's novel Degenerates, I was back on The Bobbs headed into the beam. Whatta ride!
In the Prologue little Tommy Fielding watches his father blow his mother away with a shotgun, and then is forced to watch his father kill himself with the same shotgun. At that point I knew that Tommy was not going to grow up to be a choirboy and that the rest of the pages would be bloody.
Chapter one, twenty years later, Tommy, encouraged by Jeffery who is a huge Great Dane residing in the boy's mind, kills and savagely mutilates two women because Jeffery convinces him that killing makes him stronger, makes him God and eventually he will have the power to bring Mommy back to him. Thus, Ostroff had me by the throat and I could not get away.
Tommy is the key degenerate in the story who is an infamous serial killer terrorizing Philadelphia. Ostroff skilfully leads his characters to the City Cafe where the horrifying culmination takes place. Along the way we meet the other degenerates.
There is Astor, an astoundingly beautiful young woman who escapes a brutal marriage to a young medical student, Darrel, but carries with her grief from the death of their child, which he seems glad to have lost. Ironically, Astor was Tommy's first girlfriend, and she is still in love with him.
Emily comes from a home where her mother is a fanatic Christian who drives the girl away. She turns to cocaine for which she will do literally anything to get. Only seventeen when she leaves home, Emily is a true tragic figure whom Ostroff draws beautifully.
All of his characters are drawn with skill. Ed Kirkpatrick, a writer who crawled inside a bottle of booze years before we meet him, winds up cooking short order at City Cafe. Astor and Emily find their way to the restaurant to wait tables, and Tommy is hired as dishwasher.
At the restaurant we meet Judy Forester, a sixty-year-old woman who bosses the front of the cafe and who remains grief stricken over her husband's death twenty years before.
Matt runs the kitchen. He seems to be a combination of compassion and skill whose expertise is vital to the success of City Cafe.
Into the mix comes Aaron, a young policeman who is working his first CSI case and learns that experienced officers around him are worth listening to.
Degenerates is a very worthwhile read. Ostroff's prose is crisp and clear; there isn't a boring page in the book. I will warn anyone who finds violence repugnant to pass this one by. But any writer who wants to experience great prose and well-sculpted characters should make Degenerates a must read.
~ Reviewed by Frederick Fuller, March 20, 2011
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