This is an utterly fascinating romp through a psychological minefield. A modern-day urban MASH, The Contortionist's Handbook is exactly that -- tips of the trade by the very hip, adaptable talent of a natural con, willing to tell all, informing the uninitiated but curious reader whose natural response is…. Ah.
In John Dolan Vincent's life there is no truth, only change. And each change provides an escape from one identity to another, from immediate danger to temporary time-out. A talented forger who has raised creating specialty documents to an art form, the most critical hours in his life are presaged by specific symptoms: increasing intensity of the color blue and a marked sensitivity to light. Within minutes, he is at the mercy of a horrific migraine. These migraines send John scrambling over the edge, desperate to escape the debilitating pain. He swallows illegal painkillers and alcohol indiscriminately, usually overdosing -- hence the self-described "contortionism": a change of identities, erasing the past and, along with it, any previous record of similar overdoses. Extreme measures are warranted to avoid the "system" where he would be flagged as a suicide risk and held for indefinite observation, drugged into immobility.
The final hurdle looms: the mandatory psychological evaluation and assessment prior to discharge or admission. At one such evaluation, we meet "Daniel Fletcher," John's current working identity. Fortunately, our hero is exceptionally bright, usually one step ahead of the other guy's synapses. However, John/Daniel's life recently became more complicated when he agreed to provide small services (read: documents) for some less-than-savory individuals in exchange for drugs, particularly cocaine. These goons have plans for the young man and track his whereabouts. This invisible man intends to do just that, remain invisible.
John's personal life is complicated as well. Women, sex and drugs blend and separate, depending on the amount of recreational drugs in his system at any given time, like ragged visuals of Heaven/Hell: "…a thousand moments with Natalie blasted through my memory like a pillow torn open in a high wind."
Clevenger is a writer's writer, the real deal, what Brett Easton Ellis could have become (maybe) if he hadn't been hijacked by his own ego early in the game. Rich-boy drug-chic never really gets down and dirty, only mimics the thousand-yard stare. An honest writer buys his experience the hard way, high-fiving the street folks who live down there, without macho posturing, just gliding along one notch below visibility. A "contortionist" in every sense, this artist has shelf life.
[Editor's note: The Contortionist's Handbook has been optioned for film and is being developed by IEP and Appian Way.]