I read the first two-thirds of Australian writer, broadcaster, and entertainer Paul F. Verhoeven’s stirring-but-not-slipshod, sentimental-but-not-schmaltzy debut book Loose Units like rich people eat dinner: in perfect portions, prix fixe-style, each course more delicious and eye-widening than the last. Like brown butter-doused Nantucket Bay scallops and Meyer lemon-brushed racks of lamb dance across the tongues of those silk-stocking somebodies who are used to sucking on silver spoons, so too did Paul’s words across my mind. I devoured Loose Units in pieces — in the center of my bed with an out-of-season buttercream candle burning on my nightstand, on the couch with my legs tucked underneath my hips like some kind of femoral fortune cookie, on an Indianapolis-bound airplane in a row completely to myself, opposite a trio of women who, once making it over the hill, dove headlong into a vat of vodka cran-apples. In the same way Verhoeven himself came to know his own father — the stylish, six-feet-and-some-change tall, unafraid-to-stare-conflict-in-the-face hero (ex)cop John — I discovered the little and big moments of their unique relationship: in bits at a time.
It wasn’t until I read the final third of Loose Units — a literary cocktail comprised of mostly heart-racing true crime stories with a generous glug of a winning story of a father and son relearning one another, truly seeing the other for the first time in a long time — on the left-hand side of my mother’s hospital bed that I understood the power of the Verhoeven men’s reconnection and of preserving the parts of one’s life on paper.
With Loose Units, Paul weaves a wild tapestry, and he makes the first stitch with conviction.
“I was seven years old when I saw my first dead body,” his opening line reads, detailing the time when his tiny eyes absorbed the atrocity of a crime scene photo — one that sticks with him well into his adulthood. Things only grow wilder and more gripping from there.
Feeling still perturbed by the picture he wasn’t meant to see — “WHY IS THE FLOOR BURNED?” he at one point wonders — and confused as to how exactly he was cut from the same cloth as his father — “Had something not been passed down from Dad to me during my birth?” he worries — Paul heads to Beacon Hill, New South Wales to sit down with John, unravel the questions coiled in his brain, and saturate himself with the most twisted tales his father can share. Nothing like good old-fashioned immersion therapy, hey?
Possessing an ear for language, a taste for storytelling, and what comes across as a natural proclivity for dramatization where it counts, Paul chronicles John’s leaping journey from too-skinny, near-directionless toolmaker to up-and-coming officer who reads Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds in his down time to bonafide badass cop who discovers bodies in water, danger in a city’s splinters, and a glimmering assortment of jewelry — some pieces more phallic than others — in a criminal’s pants. Betwixt John’s many adventures, Paul peppers in asides and verbal asterisks that complement, never distract from, his father’s narrative. For every ounce of blood spilt and every flash-bang of violence that sparks off the page, there’s twice as much crackling, roaring humor — the citrus chaser to all the darkly flavored shots that came before.
Living up to the slang term its title references and the free, unfastened nature it intimates, Loose Units is as rough-and-tumble, sometimes shocking, and always hilarious in its contents as it is warm and inviting in its delivery. The way in which Paul recounts all his father has faced — from morally gray incidents that would make omniscient entities raise an eyebrow if they had any to the harrowing night the infamous crime scene snap was captured — is not unlike the way someone would share a story ‘round a campfire in the middle of the mountains, where “WiFi” could be the name of a cartoon robot and where “cell service” describes the act of a prison guard sliding a tray of cafeteria slop across the threshold of an inmate’s room.
When reading Loose Units, it’s impossible not to root for John as just Paul would, to keep your heart from Kentucky Derby galloping at the apex of an anecdote, to avoid snort-laughing when John makes a lighthearted jab at Paul, or to feel at home with and in the very same room as the Verhoevens as John lets it all out and Paul takes it all in.
Visceral and hysterical in turns, Loose Units isn’t your standard memoir or a typical work of the true crime genre. In actuality, Verhoeven’s triumph of a first book is the best parts of both: personal and sweeping, punchy and adrenaline-pumping. From my vantage point, my sleeping parent’s hand in mine, that’s perhaps exactly what makes this book so bloody (and I say that quite literally) good.