The valentine in George Dawes Green’s first novel, The Caveman’s Valentine, is a body dropped on Valentine’s Day in front of a cave inhabited by the novel’s would-be sleuth and unwilling hero, Romulus Ledbetter. Known to his fellow homeless as Rom the Caveman, Romulus inhabits a cave in New York City’s Inwood Park. The novel opens with an enraged Romulus incoherently ranting and raving as he attempts to fend off the goodwill of an overly zealous social worker. Not only is Romulus homeless by choice, but he also is a paranoid eccentric given to wild fits of inchoate rambling that make him seem like a lost soul one might encounter on the subway or street corner. Yet Romulus is not without charm. When pressed, Romulus becomes a not-half-bad detective, lover, father, or musician. In Romulus Ledbetter, George Dawes Green has created the first conveniently crazy crime solver, in this odd mix of murder, mystery, and madness.
Romulus lets us know that his situation is the direct result of his mortal, but imaginary, enemy, Stuyvesant, who from his perch in the Chrysler Building zaps the unwitting residents of New York City with y-rays and z-rays. The narrative is sprinkled with Romulus’ descants on Stuyvesant’s zombification campaign. The author uses the y-rays as a device to trigger Romulus’ rants whenever logic seems to threaten the narrative with mundane storytelling.
The arrival of the body on Valentine’s Day convinces Romulus that strange things are afoot. After watching the news on an unplugged television where “all the news is lies,” Romulus stirs from his couch to witness the dumping of a body in a clump of bushes bordering his cave. The police arrive to investigate the murder scene and find Romulus in midrant. Officer Lulu Ledbetter, Romulus’ daughter, attempts impatiently to get the whole story, only to be thwarted by her father’s jumbled sense of events. While under questioning by Detective John Cork, Romulus reveals his paranoid belief that Stuyvesant is responsible for the murder, that is, the machinations of the city. Lulu apologizes for her father’s behavior, dismissing his account of the car dropping the body as yet another of his myriad hallucinations. Romulus is undeterred even when Cork tells him that there was no murder, and that Scotty Gates died from the cold. Romulus lets forth:
“Sounds very reasonable. Except that when he was tossed at my doorstep, he was already dead. He was murdered. . . . You think you can snake this one over on me? But see, I know you! You’re Stuyvesant’s a— — licker!”
Cork leaves Romulus to his cave, considering the case closed, the car a hallucination, and the body an unfortunate victim of the cold. Several days later Scotty’s would-be lover, Matthew, stumbles into Romulus’ cave strung out on heroin, and mentions to Romulus how Scotty had been modeling for an extremely famous photographer, who has just announced publicly that he has AIDS and is dying. Matthew tells Romulus that Scotty was forced into many of the poses by the photographer, David Leppenraub, and that he had been abused on several occasions. Matthew’s story fuels Romulus’ belief that the valentine dumped at his doorstep died from more than the cold. Matthew urges Romulus to find the real killers, awakening the detective in Romulus, who seems all too willing to take up what will prove to be a daunting case. What follows is the soft-boiled, genre-blending search for Scotty’s killers.
Matthew tells Romulus the story of how Scotty Gates came to be the model for Leppenraub’s most famous series of photographs. He describes Scotty’s love/hate relationship with the photographer, and how seemingly harmless photo shoots turned into warped games of sadomasochism that would shock the art world and surely devalue Leppenraub’s photographs. Matthew soon convinces Romulus that he must visit Leppenraub and confront him with the charges of murder. With some goading, Romulus makes a promise to find the real killers. Operating on a hunch and a strong sense of conspiracy, Romulus sets off to find the murderer of Scotty Gates.
What follows is one of the book’s strongest segments, lifting Romulus out of his dreary, fit-addled existence, into social circles where his paranoia and eccentricities give him the advantage. For three whole days, Romulus manages to stuff his personal demons down into their dungeon as he goes about solving the murder. He showers and manages to cop a suit and tie from a good-hearted businessman who is won over by Romulus’ story and his claim to have been a once-promising composer. Through several fairly unbelievable plot twists, Romulus manages to lie his way to an invitation to Leppenraub’s farm, posing as a composer who is working on a musical ode to the works of the photographer. It is during this transformation that we get our first glimpse of...
(The entire section is 1991 words.)