Kimberly Clark (named after the paper towel dispenser by her school janitor father) is twenty-four, ‘outgoing, quick-witted’ and ‘famous for possessing the Guillotine: a platinum-blonde bob so straight and sharp it could roll heads’. She moved to the ‘Capital’ (a never-named London) from Middlesbrough with her athlete boyfriend, Stevie. When he commits suicide she blames herself, worries that she won’t get into ‘Heaven/Nirvana/Valhalla’ and decides to start being nice to everyone. Her random acts of kindness soon lead her to dating a different man each day of the week, selling sex and buying booze for alcoholics. The result is a searing dose of cystitis, a prolapsed rectum and death.
But the story doesn’t stop there. In a metafictional nod to the omnipresence of the reader, Milward provides six alternative endings with instructions to throw a die to determine which one to read. Alternatively:
‘Dearest Grim Reader, if you don’t happen to own any dice, simply pull out six of your teeth and number them 1 to 6 with a saliva-resistant marker. Then, pop them back in your mouth, shuffle them with your tongue, and spit one out at random. Failing that, just pick a fuckin number from 1 to 6 then.’
The tone here is uncharacteristically grisly. Despite all she’s going through, the eponymous Kimberly, the story’s narrator (until Death takes over for a chapter), is usually bright and upbeat.
‘Stevie’s legs were like a leopard’s, with freckles all over them. We used to shave them together, causing tiny hairy rafts to set sail in the seafoam, and in the early days I took pride in treating his athlete’s foot for him, as well as his other athlete’s body parts.’
There are lots of puns, alliterations and rhythmic rhyming text in Kimberly’s Capital Punishment, but Milward rarely lets the tricksy writing get out of hand. When Kimberly introduces her Promiscuous Pal Polly from Southampton, for example, she notes: ‘I wish she was from Portsmouth, for the sake of alliteration, but unfortunately she’s not’.
While the prose is thick with wordplay, the plot is pretty thin. Kimberly’s only ideas for being altruistic seem to be setting up direct debits to charities and doing whatever men ask her to do. Characters drop in and out of the story without having any lasting impact, or commit improbably inconsistent acts for the sake of narrative convenience. Much of Kimberly’s guilt, for example, stems from when she kissed another man and put a Polaroid photo showing the act into one of Stevie’s pocket’s just before he died. The picture had come from her Promiscuous Pal Polly who, despite wearing very few clothes to visit a swanky club in an age of tiny digital cameras, had bothered to lug along a bulky Polaroid camera.
But to concentrate on plot alone would be to miss the point of Kimberly’s Capital Punishment. There is a sense that Milward has slaved over every single word covering these four-hundred-plus pages, a feat of true dedication considering he doesn’t expect the reader to sit through more than one of his six endings, most of which run for at least forty pages. This, his third novel, may not be a masterpiece, but Milward’s greatest work surely can’t be far away. And with this skill, at just twenty-eight, he has the potential to produce a shelf-full of classics in the years to come.
Any Cop?: Kimberly’s Capital Punishment is a good fun, funny book about death, Death, guilt and retribution. If you haven’t read anything of Milward’s before, this is a good place to start, and become a fan before everyone starts talking about his wonderfully witty and well-written novels.