Review: Chum by Jeff Somers

By Gabino Iglesias

When reading and reviewing genre-bending fiction, I try to identify elements of each genre present. If there are enough from one of them, having a grip on the narrative becomes easier. In the case of Jeff Somers' Chum, which possesses elements from a plethora of genres, I was surprised to find noir right at the top. An emphasis on sex, plenty of booze, depression, an oppressive atmosphere, and a bit of violence coalesce to make this funny novel a very witty noir.

Chum revolves around couple Mary and Bickerman and their circle of friends. The narrative follows the group for a year in which social events, back stabbings, alcohol, love, flirting, self-destructive activities, insults, gloominess, and parties where everything goes wrong force the them to reconsider and reconfigure their relationships to one another. The stress of a wedding acts like a catalyst that tests loyalties and exposes the cracks in everyone. Ultimately, the friends are forced to learn that people you consider very close are often also complete strangers.

Somers doesn't offer a lot of background information on his characters, but his combination of witty prose, constantly changing points of view, and gallows humor is enough to make that flaw almost imperceptible. Also, the narrative doesn't follow a standard chronological line, so the combination of multiple narrators and time shifts can be a tad confusing. Again, there's an element that makes up for it. In this case, it's the fact that the angry, drunk, bitter characters are deeply flawed and thus feel very real and familiar. Also, they each have a voice, which allows Somers to keep things fresh and interesting even when there's a jump in time.

Chum starts out like a smart comedy, but soon the noir aspects take over. Right under the witty dialogue, secret agendas and resentment are driving the characters. The tension between all members of the groups is dealt with in various ways, with jokes and booze as the two palliatives that help these folks stick together and survive each other. Sadly, those two are not enough.

Imperfect marriages are common, just like damaged individuals and faulty friends. What Somers does in this narrative is shine a light on those ordinary imperfections. Everyone has to deal with inner demons, but the most interesting things happen when those battles have to be fought in the company of others. Chum is a clever exploration of adult friendship and how it can morph into various monsters while people slowly move away from the cocoon of their college years.

If you're wondering what a noir reads like when it's disguised as a really dark comedy, check this one out.