Shovel Ready

Adam Sternbergh’s taut, laconic, so-grim-you-have-to-laugh-to-stop-from-crying debut novel recalls two previous outstanding first genre novels which, curiously enough, are almost polar opposites.

Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon ramped up cyberpunk bleakness and despair to new heights, in a world where life was cheap and even the heroes had to be ruthless killers. Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One also depicted a dystopian future closer to the present, but conversely showcased a set of characters full of untrodden hope and playfulness and even a gonzo zest for living. Sternbergh’s tale hews closer to the Morgan model, but there’s a little bit of Cline’s picnic-in-the-ruins panache, if only in the blackly mocking and self-derisive observations of the narrator, Spademan, a hired killer in a blasted New York City.

The first thing any reader will notice about this story, right from page one, is Spademan’s narrative voice: a clipped, elliptical, no-nonsense abstraction and distillation of the typical noir private eye’s running monologue. Philip Marlowe texting.

Lots of sentence fragments.

Short paragraphs.

Punchlines and conclusions delayed.

For maximum pow.

In short, Sternbergh has crafted a kind of Twitterized Jim Thompson voice, highly fitting for his admitted “psycho” of a hired assassin, Spademan. “Think of me more like a bullet,” he coldly claims.

Spademan’s back-story is modest and tragic: once a humble sanitation worker, following in his departed father’s vocational footsteps (“Died of a heart attack he worked a lifetime to earn”), Spademan lost his beloved wife in the terrorist attack that left his current-day NYC a half-populated, semi-radioactive ghetto. All of this has rendered him an embittered hired killer, with very few moral strictures. A self-portrait he takes pains to make clear, with several gruesome anecdotes.

We open with Spademan being hired to murder a young runaway girl named Persephone. But her real identity is Grace Harrow, daughter of T. K. Harrow, the most famous and wealthy evangelist in the nation. And she holds the key to a disturbing revelation about Harrow’s virtual-reality heaven, opening soon for the business of saving souls. It’s all in line with the way that the rich and powerful in this future choose to spend their time in the limnosphere, a Matrix-like cyberworld.

Spademan quickly reneges on his contract to kill Persephone, for a good reason according to his code: she’s pregnant, and he doesn’t kill kids, even embryonic ones. How the killer and potential victim band together, with some other louche helpers, to take down Harrow against nigh-insuperable odds forms the subsequent gory bulk of the novel.

Now, there’s very little that’s radically new in this novel. The VR angle — seductive simulacrum environment lures people away from meatspace — goes back at least to Keith Laumer’s “Cocoon,” a seminal story from 1962. The “shattered Manhattan” trope can be found recently in the graphic novel series DMZ by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli. As previously mentioned, the dead-inside killer hails from Jim Thompson, by way of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Prone Gunman (recently done up excellently by Jacques Tardi as a fine graphic novel, Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot).

And as for Sternbergh’s speculative chops — well, let’s just say they are not up to the standards of Charles Stross, John Varley, or even J. J. Abrams. Everything is pretty much off-the-shelf usage. One deficit that grates a little is the anachronistic use of cultural touchstones. One of Spademan’s pals uses the term “rabbit ears” for TV antennas, a phrase I thought I had heard the last of circa 1975. And Spademan himself makes a big deal of living in Hoboken because it’s the birthplace of Sinatra. Now, consider: let’s say Spademan is thirty-five years old, and the book takes place in 2025. That would put his date of birth at 1990. Frank Sinatra died in 1998, during Spademan’s tenure in third grade, when he would have presumably been imprinting on Rugrats, not some senescent crooner from his grandfather’s era.

But I have to give the book its due. The stock parts are chrome-plated, machined smooth, and lubed up fine. The engine is overpowered for the chassis, like some street buggy with an Indy 500 heart. Sternbergh’s emotional commitment to his premise and characters is total. Spademan’s quips are witty, his metaphors striking, and his nihilism bracingly dry. And the staccato style makes for easy reading.

You’ll have a good ride with Shovel Ready.


But fast.

The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.