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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Avenue of the Giants

Marc Dugain

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To purchase The Avenue of the Giants

Title: The Avenue of the Giants
Author: Marc Dugain
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 339 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Avenue of the Giants - US
The Avenue of the Giants - UK
The Avenue of the Giants - Canada
Avenue des Géants - Canada
The Avenue of the Giants - India
Avenue des Géants - France
In der Haut des Teufels - Deutschland
Viale dei Giganti - Italia
Avenida de los Gigantes - España
  • French title: Avenue des Géants
  • Translated by Howard Curtis

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Our Assessment:

B : compelling but inconsistent

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Figaro . 19/4/2012 Bruno Corty
Publishers Weekly . 28/4/2014 .
TLS . 5/9/2014 Hirsh Sawhney

  From the Reviews:
  • "Décidément, Dugain a le chic pour trouver des sujets chocs. Et les détourner. Ici, plus que l'histoire d'un détraqué, c'est l'autopsie d'une Amérique des années 1960-1970 en pleine révolution qui le fascine." - Bruno Corty, Le Figaro

  • "Al has trouble with "bad thoughts," but it isnít until the dramatic conclusion that the reader learns the extent of Alís depravity." - Publishers Weekly

  • "(T)he strongest parts of this novel are the beguiling first-person tracts told from Alís perspective, filled with wry similes (.....) Dugainís novel reaffirms the connection between Americaís militarism and its culture of gun violence. It casts a spotlight on the sociopolitical fragmentation that defined the country in the 1960s and continues to do so today, sometimes through heavy-handed dialogue, but usually, and more seamlessly, through ominous plotting, precise characterization and Alís revealing monologues." - Hirsh Sawhney, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Avenue of the Giants begins with a brief present-day account of a woman, Susan, visiting prisoner Al Kenner in jail. She's the only one who visits him, but he doesn't treat her particularly well. Why she visits him, or what exactly he's doing time for isn't immediately made clear, and the narrative then jumps back in time, to 1963, with Al telling his own story. The bulk of the novel is this personal account, but there are several more third-person sections with the same visitor, and it eventually becomes clear that Al is writing his life story and hopes she can arrange to get a publisher for it.
       He has quite a story to tell, beginning with that fateful 22 November 1963 when American president Kennedy was assassinated. On the same day fifteen-year-old Al killed his grandparents -- an unfortunate coincidence, since that meant:

I was green with admiration and envy. Envy because this guy was going to steal the limelight from me. It was supposed to be my day of fame but, even in the local rags, that was all they were going to be talking about. How could something like that have happened to me ?
       Al turns himself in soon after committing the crime. He's a juvenile, and he winds up at the Atascadero facility for the criminally insane -- but clearly this crime isn't why he is still incarcerated, decades later.
       The Avenue of the Giants is closely based on the life and crimes of real-life serial killer Edmund Kemper, and though Kemper only killed his grandparents in 1965 their stories otherwise generally match. With Al imprisoned the conclusion is foregone; any familiarity with Kemper's crimes (or a quick Internet check) means readers might also be familiar with the later crimes that got him put away -- so Dugain's interest here, beyond the purely sensational, is to try to look into what turned this man, with a far above average IQ and an incredibly imposing stature (Al gives his adult height as seven foot two), into a serial killer.
       While the messy murder of the grandparents features early on, Dugain for the most part avoids being sensationalistic. Repeatedly, Al admits that he's afraid of violence -- all these years he's able to avoid getting into fights and the like because of his sheer intimidating size -- and in much of the book there is relatively little violence. Only at the very end, in the short last section, do we really learn what he's done. As he tells Susan at on of her visits to him, when he's almost finished with his book:
Right now I'm getting to the last part of the book. And I'm not sure yet how to handle it. I'm afraid even readers who've been with me until then will reject the book at that point.
       Of course, it's a bit late in the day by that point -- and even readers unaware of what exactly Kemper did (and it was some bad, bad stuff) understand that it must have been horrific for Al to still be jailed, with basically no chance at parole. What is reveals -- in addition to just the ugly facts --, however, is also that Al hasn't been an entirely reliable narrator -- or at least not an entirely forthright one. Hints abound, of course, but he's still been fairly manipulative, as he's tried to create an image of himself that appears to be warts and all but glosses over (to put it mildly) some of his actions.
       Of course, it shouldn't be a surprise that Al tries to manipulate the image others have of him: that's what he openly does in much of the story too. When he's institutionalized as a teen he already understands he has to convince his shrinks that he's sane, and while he's fairly open with the first one he basically understands he can and should just toy with the second. It works, too, as he's a free man again by the time he's twenty.
       The first psychiatrist who treats him, Dr. Leitner, recognizes Al's intelligence and treats him fairly well, practically becoming the substitute father-figure Al is in dire need of. He also makes clear that he thinks, with some work, Al can be rehabilitated and safely released. There's just one thing he insists on:
Whatever happens, I'm categorical about this, he must never see his mother again. Ever.
       He hit the nail on the head with that, recognizing her as the root of all Al's problems and evil. Unfortunately, Leitner is no longer in a position to have much say when the decision is made to release Al -- and he's literally handed back over to her. Al's mother always treated him as a monster, and Al's father, marked by his own wartime experiences (which clearly also involved a lot of killing), was unable to stand up for his son, eventually simply abandoning the family. Al repeatedly tries to free himself of his mother's awful influence -- and she constantly wishes him good riddance -- but they return to do their ugly domestic dance over and over. It does not end well.
       Al seems terribly frank in his account, describing his mental anguish, his binge drinking (following in his mother's footsteps), and his attempts to get a hold of himself. He winds up a regular at a cop bar and even befriends the head of the local homicide squad -- another father/confessor figure whose name, Duigan, is an anagram of the author's ... -- and becomes involved (in his awkward way) with Duigan's daughter, Wendy. When a serial killer-spree starts, Al offers Duigan some keen insights, profiling Jeff McMullan (the real-life Herbert Mullin) eerily precisely, impressing Duigan enough to offer Al a consultant position with the police.
       Al feels much more comfortable in the law-and-order world of the police and he's disappointed that he can't become a cop himself because he's too tall. In the late 60s and early 70s hippies are flocking to California, and he can't stand them and what they stand for; still, one of his hobbies is picking up hitchhikers, usually students, and this and getting drunk at the cop-bar are about the extents of his socializing -- less than ideal, not surprisingly.
       It makes for an unusual look at a serial killer, the crimes (after the killing of the grandparents) finally only revealed in their grisly detail basically in a summary that is almost just an afterthought. This means that for much of the novel the reader is kept guessing. Since Al is in jail -- and has been for decades -- it's clear something bad happened, and throughout we see a man teetering on some edge. It's just not exactly clear what that edge is.
       Dugain handles this pretty well, but in making his protagonist, in all respects, so much larger than life (7'2" ? that's beyond enormous -- and he has an IQ higher than Einstein's (as he rather too often reminds folks)) is working with a somewhat unwieldy character. He's a reasonably compelling figure, and the voice is convincing enough for long stretches -- but not entirely consistently so.
       There are a variety of flaws in the telling, too, from the picture of America in the 1960s -- Vietnam was not yet as front and center as Dugain already has it in 1963 (one problem with moving Kemper's first double-murder back two years), for example -- to some uneven writing. Dugain does a lot quite well, but also overreaches in part. As with the slightly off Americana- and period-details throughout, matters aren't helped by a some jarring translation slips -- surely whatever they prepared on a beach-outing were not "fried sausages" (grilled franks, maybe ?), for example, and Al's mom's horrible words would be much clearer if instead of: "If I'd had a Mongol son, it couldn't have been worse" the clearer, uglier term 'mongoloid' were used.
       The Avenue of the Giants is a reasonably interesting character-portrait, an attempt at considering the workings of an unusual serial-killer's mind and psyche. It's a decent read, too -- though Dugain can't quite sustain the initial promise and force of the novel.
       The depths of Al's feelings are deep and dark indeed, and there are moments when enough shines through, as when he admits:
     The only way to bear it, to cling to the slenderest of threads still connecting you to life, is by committing an act of destruction as big as that hole.
       There's a lot of avoidance in The Avenue of the Giants. One can understand Al's reluctance to reveal what he actually did until the bitter end, but it's a hard trick for a novel-writer to pull off, and Dugain ultimately keeps Al and his story dangling just a bit too long and much.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 May 2014

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The Avenue of the Giants: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Marc Dugain was born in 1957.

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© 2014 the complete review

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