Hardcover, 354 pages, $30.95
Review by Sheila M. Merritt
Drew Stepek’s novel Knuckle Supper combines gritty social commentary with over the top violence. Although imbued with some heartfelt emotion, the narrative’s splatterpunk style obscures its theme of finding remnants of humanity amidst all the savagery. Set in Los Angeles “a city filled with bloodsucking drug-addicted gangs,” this tale of the kinship of an adolescent hooker and a strung out vampire is confusing in tone. Reveling in graphic scenes of bloody dismemberment and sadistic torment, the author strives to create a sense of the redemptive value of relationships. Yes, there are personality changes for the better. And many bad folk do get a comeuppance; but given the cast of characters, most everyone is bad folk. The code of ethics is extremely blurry and malleable.
RJ, the sanguinary protagonist, finds himself feeling protective of an underaged prostitute. Called Bait, as in “jailbait,” the kid took to the streets after being sexually abused at home. Intrigued by the vampire and his cohorts and turf rivals, Bait delights in the mayhem of RJ’s existence. Camaraderie ensues. In sort of an undead take on the films Taxi Driver and The Professional, the dynamic between the girl and her murderous benefactor produces a borderline kinky connection. The salvation of a former innocent is an emotional turn on; a blood sucker’s version of Pygmalion. He waxes paternal/fraternal; condemning the cruel culture that shaped her. The tenor of the tale, however, is not sentimental – far from it.
Stepek employs lengthy snarky dialogue which promotes a sensation of warped whimsy, and a disconnect occurs. The depiction of the unconventional commitment of Bait and RJ is overshadowed by relentlessly barbarous acts combined with overused sardonic humor. As Bait endures further degradations, RJ is subjected to (and dispenses much) hurt and humiliation. Nothing is left to the imagination in terms of describing viciousness; and ample opportunities are seized to throw in horror related laughs.
While attempting to bring to light the plight of youths propelled into prostitution, Knuckle Supper’s shifts in tonal emphasis derail its mission. Admirably though, up to 10% of the book’s revenue will be donated to Children of the Night, an organization which rescues young people forced into sexual enslavement. Drew Stepek allows the gratuitous gore, and sarcastic musings to mute what could have been a fine study of caring trumping callousness.