Primarily known for his screenplays and documentaries, Serpent Girl is the first novel by former circus hand Matthew Carnahan. The novel begins with a bang when the narrator, Bailey Quinn, awakes in the middle of the desert, suffering from thirst, a peyote high, and a throat wound that almost cost him his life. Before long he has stolen a Volkswagon bus and sets out for vengeance.
The novel weaves back and forth, juxtaposing chapters set in the present as Bailey attempts to find his former friends who betrayed him and stole his share of the loot from a circus payroll heist with his past as a hired hand at the circus and how he came to seduce the armless and legless “Serpent Girl” in order to steal the circus payroll. His quest to find the friends who turned on him and stranded him in the desert is further complicated by his having to stay one step ahead of the circus freaks he has outraged and who are out for blood.
Carnahan attempts a certain balancing act in the novel. On the one hand, we have a typical wry hard-boiled crime novel, replete with drug dealers, heinous murders, heists gone bad, and a plethora of guns within the first few pages. On the other hand, scenes from Bailey's past and memories of his mother's suicide help the reader understand how he came to be the man he is and complexify his character. Similarly, the portrayal of Eelie the Serpent Girl humanizes her and adds a layer of guilt to Bailey's actions in using her for his scheme. Ultimately, however, the novel fails to maintain its sense of balance; it is never poignant enough to make the reader truly care for the characters, and the crime elements of the narrative lack the intense immediacy needed for the genre.