The Short Version: After a dirty bomb decimates Times Square, New York City empties out in one way or another. Those who can afford it slip into the limn, a perfect virtual reality, while those who can’t either leave the city for good or become shells of their former selves. Spademan is one of the last: a former garbage man and husband, now hardened hit man. But when he stops short of killing a pregnant girl, he finds himself going up against a powerful religious leader in the shadows of a near-dystopic future.
The Review: There’s something specific about New York City, isn’t there? Feels like an obvious thing to say, but really think about it: if this city collapsed, the world would still spin madly on… it just wouldn’t quite be the same. There would be some indefinable void. A dirty bomb in Times Square – nothing that’d collapse the whole city, just knock out the ten or so square blocks – could cut the heart out of this place but would you leave? In Sternbergh’s gritty semi-apocalyptic future, I’m not sure that I would. The rest of the country seems to be powering on more or less as usual – but, like Spademan, there’s a gravitational pull to this city that demands your attention for… well, as long as it demands it. When it gives you up, you’re done – but that’s another thing.
Anyway. New York City. Gritty, grimy, messed up as ever just in a different way. Sternbergh has been living here and writing for everybody from the Times to Vulture so he knows this place and it shows. Little details, like the descriptions of Chinatown or the specifics of the architecture near Trump Tower at Columbus Circle – they’re drawn with a native’s eye, even with the veil of the future changing them a bit.
The details show, too, when he deals with the psyche of the city. The explanation of what happened, the bombing itself, comes about halfway through the novel and as I sat on a train rushing downtown to the Financial District to see a (horrible, not-worth-my-time) apartment, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of panic. The book made me look at my surroundings differently in that moment, a testament to both its power and the power of the thing Sternbergh was describing.
His descriptive work doesn’t go too much farther than describing action and scenery, though: I never really got to know any of the characters all that well. Even Spademan, who allows us-as-reader to know the background of his life that he wouldn’t share with any actual humans in his story, remains pretty much a cipher – like a generic Liam Neeson/Jason Statham character. When was the last time you saw those guys in an action movie where it really mattered who they were or what their backgrounds happened to be? Nah, the characters are interchangeable: it’s the crime/murdering/action that changes and/or matters.
And, admittedly, that stuff was interesting. I won’t give away any spoilers – but it was enjoyable, albeit relatively predictable. The scenario is a classic introductory one: bad guy with a moral streak must suddenly defend an innocent lady against a monstrous baddie. There are some neat tweaks on the theme as the story rolls along and, again, the visuals are great (thinking specifically of, in the limnspace, a guy who basically avatars as Uriel) but ultimately, it was exactly the story and resolution one might expect from reading the jacket copy or the first few pages. Does he make the ride worthwhile? Absolutely – it’s a blast to read, even while some moments might make New Yorkers especially break out in a light cold sweat on the train. But it’s also a ride we know.
Speaking of, one more thing before we go: as I read this book, I realized that it seemed familiar. I found myself recalling a similar story from a few years ago that I had really enjoyed: Nathan Larson’s The Dewey Decimal System (although I haven’t read the second or forthcoming third books in that trilogy as yet). This isn’t a plagiarism sort of similarity, but the two books are kindred spirits if not brothers from different pens. And I do feel a little bad for Larson, as his books are out from the tiny Akashic Books while Sternbergh is at Crown and has the might of a New York Magazine byline behind him. And FWIW, I think Larson’s book was a little more original (perhaps because I read it first, although I don’t know, who’s to say) and altogether more enjoyable – although Sternbergh’s is not without its joys. I feel like Sternbergh’s was an intro to a potentially long-running series, whereas Larson’s felt from book one like it was the opening salvo of a trilogy. We’ll see: I might take both sequels and read them back to back – and then report… back… to you….
Rating: 3 out of 5. A great techno-twist on a classic anti-hero story. Sternbergh’s writing is pulpy and fast and his attention to detail (literally the details of the scene, the background, the location, the way things look and feel) is tremendous. But at the end of the day, it didn’t bring anything new to the table other than giving me a knot in my stomach during the description of the dirty bomb that wipes out Times Square. Sternbergh’s future is all-too-possible, but also just a little too familiar. Still, it was a fun book – and I’ll happily read the next (and the next after that).