Having read and enjoyed several earlier titles by the prolific Ronald Malfi — namely The Passenger, Floating Staircase, and Skullbelly — I was quick to request a review copy of Via Dolorosa when I saw it listed among the first batch of titles from new publisher Abattoir Press. The book’s title sounded familiar to me, and I soon found out why: the Abattoir edition is a reprint, as the book was originally published by Raw Dog Screaming in 2007.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Via Dolorosa largely reads like exactly what it is — a book written earlier in the author’s career, before he developed some of the skills he has today.
Set entirely in and around the gently decaying Paradis d’Hotel on Hilton Head island, Via Dolorosa does manage to achieve a strange, dreamy sense of timelessness — if not for the references made by protagonist Lieutenant Nick D’Nofrio to the war in Irqa, from which he has recently returned,I could have easily believed that the novel was set in any of several earlier decades.
D’Nofrio is the heart and soul of the novel, a man bothered by the serious hand injury he received in the war, but outright tortured by the memories of what happened there, and by one memory in particular. The recently-discharged D’Nofrio and his new wife Emma are at the Hotel so that he can paint a mural, an opportunity for him to exercise his artistic talent, his wounded hand permitting. Nick is increasingly haunted by a ghost from the war, his new marriage begins to fray at the edges, and his restlessness leads him into ambiguous, multi-layered relationships with a beautiful but manipulative Spanish woman, a bartender who’s also haunted by a death from his past, and the hotel’s bell captain, who happens to be the father of a soldier who served under Nick in Iraq. Nick’s psychological trauma influences his behavior and surfaces in his mural, which starts to take on dark, morbid tones, without his even realizing it.
The main problem with Via Dolorosa is that, given the book’s length, precious little actually happens. A great deal of time and effort is invested in trying to create atmosphere and mood, and the book is somewhat successful in that regard, but the overwhelming impression I got is that this is a book that’s trying very hard to be a literary novel, not a genre work…and the author doesn’t have the chops — at least at this particular juncture in his career — to pull it off. The end result is slowly paced, relatively uneventful, and headlined by a moody protagonist who’s difficult to sympathize with.
I can recommend Via Dolorosa for Malfi fans who missed the earlier Raw Dog Screaming edition, but for those still awaiting their first exposure to the author, he has many other works that better showcase his abilities.