Writing with the gritty realism of Andrew Vachss, Baer has aptly titled Hell's Half Acre, a descent into darkness that requires a strong constitution, but is worth the effort. In this world, killers appear unannounced and strange men mutilate their bodies for kicks, cash can buy anything, no matter how obscene and death is always a heartbeat away. It takes a fertile imagination to construct the layers of this elaborate, unpredictable nightmare.
Phineas Poe is on a strange trip, part psychological, part real. His first order of business is to track his girlfriend, the very tough Jude, trained by Special Forces and his former partner in crime-cum-romance. Jude and Poe's drug odyssey alone could cure a junkie. A violent act sundered their earlier cohabitation; since then, Poe's only mission is to find Jude. An ex-cop, Phineas Poe is an ambiguous character, following his more bizarre instincts, fueled by drugs but secretly nurturing a hopeful heart. Within the first couple of pages, Poe makes a fateful choice, when he notices the "thin shallow mouth of the alley my possible monster had come running from" and "I walked into that dark mouth". From that point on, the action only accelerates.
Meanwhile, the pathological John Ransom Miller is planning his snuff film, starring Jude, Phineas and assorted others. Jude has revenge on her mind and Phineas wants to be there for her, drug-hazed but willing. To that end they step into some very dark places, assuming an escape route that never quite materializes. Miller has a propensity for life and death games, ratcheting up the danger with the addition of more mayhem to expand the film's appeal, setting the actors up like pawns in a rigged chess game. To say that most of these characters are cynical would be an understatement; however, in a city's netherworld, survival dictates a certain perspective. But Poe doesn't want to play anymore, pushed to the edge of his fragmented integrity.
Reading this novel is like watching a triple X-rated movie, where all the X's are for violent acts. Pop culture seeps through the pages, images jumping out at random moments: Travis Bickle, the white rabbit. The novel is successful because it is never exploitative. Baer's dark journey of the soul, while tinged with excessive violence, is driven by an impressive imagination, as Poe masters the art of walking on the wild side, skirting the edge without tumbling into the abyss or accidentally slitting his own throat. Luan Gaines/2004.