(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Todd Komarnicki’s first novel takes its title from the nickname of its protagonist, Jefferson Alexander Freeman. Since he was seventeen, Free has been a homeless person in New Orleans, his memory of his origins all but gone. Imbued with the romanticism of despair, he flings himself through the stained glass window of the church of his friend Father Jessup Mobley in an attempt to embrace the child Jesus and his mother Mary. Some of the glass from this tragic gesture remains in his head throughout the novel, during which his image for his defiant isolation is the rhinoceros.

Free finds himself involved in the investigation of the murders of two Chinese immigrants and his friend Felulah Matin, a stripper in Wong’s Exotic Dance Club. Heroin smuggling, as well as illegal immigration, has something to do with the murders. Outraged by Felulah’s death, Free is worried that he himself might have had something to do with it.

Taken under the wing of Detective Agatha (Aggie) Li, Free insists on helping her solve the case. Their investigation brings them to Hong Kong, where they try to track down the source of the fleur-de-lis tattooed on each of the murder victims. They end up meddling dangerously with Shun Peng, a cunning tattooist; Early Thatch, the British middleman in a ring that smuggles Chinese illegal aliens and heroin to the United States, and Liu Hai, a corrupt detective.

Who is behind the smuggling operation and the murders, what caused Free to become a homeless person to begin with, and what his relationship with Aggie will develop into are questions that require Free and Aggie’s return to New Orleans for an answer.

Todd Komarnicki brings a poetic style to his expression of Free’s demonic personality and to his descriptions of the cityscapes in which Free plays out his intense feelings. Furthermore, the author is at pains to sympathize with the plight of those Chinese fleeing Hong Kong before its takeover by China in 1997 and to project a sense of redemption, which he does by employing an image of angels when Free returns to Mobley’s church at the novel’s conclusion.