Beyond Spider-Man : 2014 : Niketown
THE ELEVATOR PITCH: It’s a darkly-comic crime novel about an ex-con, just released from prison, who has to play amateur detective to find his missing brother.
THE EXTENDED PITCH: The mysterious figure known only as Outlaw Vern has been publishing movie reviews on the Internet since 1999. He’s known for his wit and his respect for genre filmmaking, expressed through his extended, thoughtful, and insightful takes on types of films that don’t usually receive that treatment, like direct-to-video action or ‘80s slasher. He’s perhaps best known for Seagalogy, his extended monograph on the themes and motifs in the work of Steven Seagal.
Now Vern has written his first novel, and it’s a gem. The premise is engaging from the start: Carter Chase has just been released from prison, where he’s been languishing for almost ten years on a burglary charge, just in time for his mother’s funeral. His brother Mark was supposed to pick him up, but doesn't appear. Carter assumes that this is because he’s embarrassed, but when Mark also fails to appear at the funeral, Carter realizes his brother is missing, and it’s up to him to figure out where Mark went, and why. While doing this, Carter has to begin putting his life back together, which is always tricky for an ex-con, but is especially so in this case, as the world has changed since he went up: mobile phones and advertising are ubiquitous now, for one thing. For another, his former criminal associates, whom Carter refused to implicate when he was arrested, aren't pleased that Carter is back and wants what he’s owed.
It’s a great set-up, and engages the reader immediately, and it pays off in the end - Vern has watched enough movies to know the genre structure intimately. The last third of the book delivers several surprises, but in each case they are earned surprises: Vern lays the pipe to foreshadow these early on, but does so without tipping his hand. Vern also has more on his agenda than simply crafting a straight-ahead pulp thriller. He has things to say about contemporary American life; things that, like his subject, manage to be funny and bleak at the same time. And he does all this while investing his characters, even the minor antagonists, with a sense of humanity. It’s clear that minor character Dante, a scumbag criminal who makes a habit of betraying his compatriots, sees himself as the hero of his own story; so too do the unhelpful cops, advertising executives, and small-time chancers that round out the cast.
THE VERDICT: Orson Scott Card may have gone off the deep end, but he once made the trenchant observation that fiction is about one or more of four things: plot, character, setting, or ideas. Vern nails all four here: the plot is engaging from the get-go, is well constructed, and goes to unexpected places; the characters all seem real and are sympathetically drawn; the setting, a five-minutes-from-now future, is believable but appalling; and the ideas, about the pitfalls of life, both external and internal, in twenty-first century America, are heavier fare than one expects from a genre novel, but are worth ruminating over.
Vern has delivered a winner here. If this was one of our comic reviews I’d give it five out of five webs. I’d also note the book is available on the Kindle store for $4.99 USD, which these days is the same as a fat Marvel book. Do yourself a favour and check it out.