Review: Occupational Hazards

Slacker noir.

Bernard Cockburn (pronounced Coburn) lives in Omaha, Nebraska. That's somewhere near Iowa or maybe Kansas. Bernard Cockburn drinks to excess. Who wouldn't if they lived in Omaha?

Bernard Cockburn does drugs: whatever he can get his dirty little hands on. Bernard Cockburn shares an apartment with Allison, his sort-of girlfriend.

When not drunk or stoned Cockburn works as an investigative reporter for a weekly alternative newspaper in Omaha. Cockburn is a slacker and an asshole. That's why he’s so likeable as the narrator and hero of Jonathan Segura's noir tale, Occupational Hazards. He represents all that we hate about ourselves. Saint Cockburn.

And he's very funny. Here're a couple of examples. Allison asks Cockburn why he gets so many e-mails for penis pumps:
…so I came clean, and she thought in was funny that I jerked off in the high-backed chair. Then she wanted to know what I did with it – the semen – when I ejaculated. (Which are the works she used semen and ejaculated.) So I said I shot it into a pair of her underwear and I'd never tell her which ones.

And, moments later,
I…turn my attention to the tube. Flip through the major [TV] affiliates (the Fox newscast, which is on an hour earlier and features a newsreader with a harelip, is on a par, reportage- and production-quality-wise, with something out of Albania twenty years ago), and Allison throws herself down next to me.

As you can see, Segura’s riff is somewhere between the movie The Front Page and an early Martin Amis novel. Cockburn is a guerrilla journalist looking for a story. One that turns out to include greed, murder, sex crimes, corrupt politicians and vast conspiracies. Cockburn struts through the pages an unrepentant journalism junky and substance abuser. And Allison's worst nightmare. But he's not a womanizer. He just can't seem to commit to their relationship. So she's forced to take drastic action. Will it work? You'll have to read the story to find out.

Meanwhile, on the mean streets of Omaha in bleak mid-winter, Cockburn gets a scanner tip and watches as a father shoots his daughter and is then gunned down by the cops. Just another freak show in Omaha's blighted inner city.

Following this horrendous incident, Cockburn meets with his boss Manny, owner / publisher of the Omaha Weekly News-Telegraph. Manny wants him to do a story on an urban gentrification project to create a cool inner city arts district and bar scene. Cockburn learns from a hooker named Luka that a platoon of paramilitary vigilantes are cruising the slums and blue-collar neighborhoods, coming down hard on the dope pushers, the shag hags and whatever else your corrupt little heart might desire.

We watch as Cockburn's relationship with Allison goes south and bit-by-bit the "big evil secret" unfolds like the slow motion opening of a flower or the lips of a vagina. Cockburn is a relentless bulldog and a flaming asswipe. An unrepentant rogue a la the Ginger Man. His bulldogishness is his redeeming quality. Women readers are advised to hiss at appropriate intervals. Hurling the book across the room is also permitted. But no book burnings.

Segura's dialogue is pitch perfect and very funny. Here are Cockburn and Luka:
…I keep the notebook and pen out, but I don't let the two come together.
Call it a compromise. "How much?"
"I'll suck you off for twenty-five, fuck for fifty."
The dogs bark and rattle the fence behind me.
"I don't have that," I say.
"Twenty," she says.
"Look, I don't want to fuck you –"
"Twenty's for head."
"Whatever it's for, I'm not interested." Really? "What I am interested in, however, is your take on these neighborhood-watch dudes."

Personally, I think he should have gone for the blowjob. But Cockburn's a white guy on a mission and Luka, well, she's a hooker of color.

Later Luka is revealed to be the Chief Operating Officer of the Prince of Darkness. Not dissimilar to being an executive at a Wall Street investment bank these days.

Here's some more funny dialogue, this time between Cockburn and Allison. As the plot thickens, so does the snipping between Burn and Allison.
"You cut your hair?" [I say] The sly dog I am.
"Washed it?"
She draws a breath and shoots it out of her nose. "What else'd you do today?"
"New assignment." Sip. "Next neighborhood over's got its own paramilitary outfit."
"Excellent question. Don't have an answer yet."
She gets this exasperated look but stops short of rolling her eyes. "That job," she says, "is beneath you."
"And you aren't?"
She grabs my glass and sucks down the dregs. Melted ice, mostly. "Not often enough."
So, really, she's not all that bad. "Yeah. Well." I hit the bathroom, where we keep the household pharmaceuticals…Shake out a couple of downers…before pouring the last of the Crow.

The pace ratchets up when Cockburn discovers that, of the three founding members of the vigilante group, one was the man Cockburn saw gunned down by the police and another is a recluse confined to a wheel chair after a car accident.

You'll either love this book or you'll hate it. I read it like an addictive drug while floating in my motel pool on South Padre Island, Texas amid the waning days of summer. There's something uplifting about reading about a character who's more of a jerk than you are.

The novel's ending was a tad disappointing - too big a revelation for the weight of the book. But that's a quibble. Occupational Hazards is fast, furious and funny.

PS: After you've read Occupational Hazards, remember to reread The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley, who died September 17, 2008. He was a great fucking writer.

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Occupational Hazards by Jonathan Segura
Simon & Schuster
256 Pages

Jonathan Woods is a writer living in Dallas Texas. When not writing he works part time at a small art gallery: Dahlia Woods Gallery.