Shovel Ready

Shovel Ready

by Adam Sternbergh
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Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh

The futuristic hardboiled noir that Lauren Beukes calls “sharp as a paper-cut” about a garbage man turned kill-for-hire.

Spademan used to be a garbage man.  That was before the dirty bomb hit Times Square, before his wife was killed, and before the city became a blown-out shell of its former self.

Now he’s a hitman.

In a near-future New York City split between those who are wealthy enough to “tap in” to a sophisticated virtual reality, and those who are left to fend for themselves in the ravaged streets, Spademan chose the streets.  His new job is not that different from his old one: waste disposal is waste disposal.  He doesn’t ask questions, he works quickly, and he’s handy with a box cutter.  But when his latest client hires him to kill the daughter of a powerful evangelist, his unadorned life is upended: his mark has a shocking secret and his client has a sordid agenda far beyond a simple kill.  Spademan must navigate between these two worldsthe wasteland reality and the slick fantasyto finish his job, clear his conscience, and make sure he’s not the one who winds up in the ground. 

Adam Sternbergh has written a dynamite debut: gritty, violent, funny, riveting, tender, and brilliant.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385348997
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 01/14/2014
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Adam Sternbergh is the culture editor of The New York Times Magazine. Formerly an editor-at-large for New York, his writing has been featured in several other publications including GQ, The Times of London, and on the radio program This American Life. He lives in Brooklyn and is at work on a second Spademan novel. · @sternbergh

Read an Excerpt


My name is Spademan. I’m a garbageman.

—this fucker.

I don’t care.

Don’t you want—

Just a name.

I have his address.


See this fucker—

I said don’t.


The less I know, etcetera.

How much?

What I said. To the account I mentioned.

And how will I—

You won’t hear from me again.

But how do I—

The dead guy. That’s how.

I don’t want to know your reasons. If he owes you or he beat you or she swindled you or he got the promotion you wanted or you want to fuck his wife or she fucked your man or you bumped into each other on the subway and he didn’t say sorry. I don’t care. I’m not your Father Confessor.

Think of me more like a bullet.

Just point.

—best friends. At least that’s what I thought. Then it turns out she’s fucking him.

Please, ma’am. I will disconnect. And this number doesn’t work twice.

Wait. Is this safe?

Which part?

Aren’t they listening?

Of course.


Doesn’t matter.

Why not?

Picture America.


Now picture all the phone calls in all the cities in America.


Now picture all the people in all the world who are calling each other right now trying to plot ways to blow America up.


So who the fuck do you think is going to care about you and your former best friend?

I see. Will you tell her—


Will you tell her when you see her that it was me who sent you. It was me.

I’m not FedEx. I don’t deliver messages. Understand?


Good. Now the name. Just the name.

I kill men. I kill women because I don’t discriminate. I don’t kill children because that’s a different kind of psycho.

I do it for money. Sometimes for other forms of payment. But always for the same reason. Because someone asked me to.

And that’s it.

A reporter buddy once told me that in newspapers, when you leave out some important piece of information at the beginning of a story, they call it burying the lede.

So I just want to make sure I don’t bury the lede.

Though it wouldn’t be the first thing I’ve buried.

It might sound hard but it’s all too easy now. This isn’t the same city anymore. Half-asleep and half-emptied-out, especially this time of morning. Light up over the Hudson. The cobblestones. At least I have it mostly to myself.

These buildings used to be warehouses. Now they’re castles. Tribeca, a made‑up name for a made‑up kingdom. Full of sleeping princes and princesses, holed up on the highest floors. Arms full of tubes. Heads full of who knows. And they’re not about to come down here, not at this hour, on the streets, with the carcasses, with the last of the hoi polloi.

Yes, I know the word hoi polloi. Read it on a cereal box.

I never liked Manhattan, even back when everyone still liked it, when people still flocked from all over the world to visit and smile and snap photos. But I do like the look of Tribeca. Old industrial neighborhood, a remnant from when this city used to actually make things. So I come across the river in the early morning to walk around here before dawn. Last quiet moment before people wake up. Those who still bother waking up.

Used to be you’d see men with dogs. This was the hour for that. But there are no dogs anymore, of course, not in this city, and even if you had one, you’d never walk it, not in public, because it would be worth a million dollars and you’d be gutted once you got around the corner and out of sight of your trusty doorman and your own front door.

I did see a man once walking a million-dollar dog. On a treadmill, in a lobby, behind bullet-proof glass.

Feed-bag delivery boy on a scooter zips past me, up Franklin, tires bouncing over the cobblestones. Engine whines like he’s driving a rider-mower, killing the morning quiet. Cooler on the scooter carries someone’s liquid breakfast. Lunch and dinner too, in IV bags.

Now it’s just nurses and doormen and feed-bag delivery boys out at this hour. Tireless members of the service economy.

Like me.

Phone rings.

—and how old is she?


You sure about that?

Does it matter?

Yes. Quite a bit.

Well, she’s eighteen.

Got a name?

Grace Chastity Harrow. But she goes by a new name now. Persephone. That’s what her friends call her, so I hear. If she has any friends.

Where is she?

New York by now. I assume.

That’s not much to go on.

She’s a dirty slut junkie—

Calm down or I hang up.

So you’re just a hunting dog? Is that it?

Something like that.

Just a bloodhound in a world of foxes?

Look, you need a therapist, that’s a different number.

She’s somewhere in New York, so far as I know. She ran away.

I have to ask. Any relation?

I thought this was no questions.

This matters.

To whom?

To me.

No, I meant any relation to whom?

T. K. Harrow. The evangelist.

Now why should that matter?

Famous people draw attention. It’s a different business. Different rates.

As I said, I’ll pay double. Half now, half later.

All now, and as I said, I need to know.

Yes. She betrayed his—

I don’t care.

But you’ll do it?

A fake name in a big city. Not exactly a treasure map. More like a mile of beach and a plastic shovel.

She said she was headed to New York. To the camps. They call her Persephone. That’s a start, right?

I guess we’ll find out.

May I ask you another question?

Go ahead.

You can kill a girl, just like that?

Yes I can.


Before you transfer that money, you better make sure you ask yourself the same thing.

I hang up and write a single word on a scrap of paper.


Pocket it.

Then take the SIM card out of the phone, snap it, and drop the phone down a sewer grate, hidden beneath the cobblestone curb.

No motives, no details, no backstory. I don’t know and I don’t want to know. I have a number and if you’ve found it, I know you’re serious. If you match my price, even more so. Once the money arrives, it starts. Then it ends.

Waste disposal. Like I said.

It’s an old joke, but I like it.

Truth is, I never spend the money.


I start at the camps. The biggest one’s Central Park. At first the rich at the rim of the park hired private guards to chase them out, tear down their tents, send them scurrying, by any means necessary. Then there was a couple of incidents, a few headlines, then a skinning. Private guards got creative. Peeled a kid and hung him upside-down from a tree. That didn’t play well, even in the Post.

All that’s over now. The rich never come out to the park anymore, could give a shit about Strawberry Fields, the camps have been here three, four years, long past anyone caring.

Dozens of pup tents, like rows of overturned egg cartons. Dirty faces. Drum circles and dreadlocks.

I ask around.

The first person who knows her has a forehead full of fresh stitches.

Bitch cut my face.

Band of white peeks up over his waistband. Not boxers. Bandages.

Looks like she didn’t stop there.

He picks at a stitch.


Kid nearby pipes up.

I knew her. Cute girl. Quiet. Pink knapsack. Wouldn’t let anyone near it.

You know what was in it?

Drugs, be my guess. That’s what most people hold on to tightly around here.

He’s a skinny kid with a shaved head, sprawled out on a ratty towel. Sleeveless t‑shirt and sweatpants and thousand-dollar sneakers, barely smudged. The kind of kid who’s used to having other people run his errands for him.

I ask him the last time he left the park.

Me? Why? Truce with the cops seems cherry enough.

You have everything you need right here?

More like I don’t have anything I don’t need, you feel me?

Pretty girl peeks her head out of his tent before he shoos her back inside. Then he shoots me a look like, What can you do? Duty calls. I ignore it.

How well did you know her?

Persephone? Not as well as I would have liked. Common theme among the dudes living here, by the way.

You make a move?

Ask my friend with the stitches how that would have worked out.

So where did she go?

Just left in the night, far as I know. I woke up and all her stuff was gone. Most of my stuff too.

Any clue where she was headed?

No. But if you find her, tell her I want my blanket and my stash of beef jerky back.

You mind if I talk to your friend in the tent?

Smiles. Shrugs.

She’s all yours.

Pretty girl. Young. Far from home. Overalls and a red bandana tied over hair she cut herself. Seems sisterly. Figure she’s more the type Persephone might have opened up to.

I tap on the tent, then we walk out of earshot.

—we weren’t close. Talked a few times. Then I heard she left.


Made too many enemies. Or rather, unmade too many friends. Headed to Brooklyn, was what I heard. Maybe towards family.

That helps.

By the way, you’re not the only one come asking around for her.

Do tell.

Southern guy. Buzz cut. Those mirrored glasses, what do you call them—


That’s it.

How long ago?

Maybe a day. Maybe yesterday.

I say thanks. Then ask her a few things I shouldn’t.

How long you been here?

Me? A year, give or take.

Where’s home?


Before that?

Don’t matter.

And how old are you?

Look, you can’t fuck me, if that’s what you’re asking.

That’s not what I’m asking.

Well, maybe you can. Don’t give up too easy.

Thanks for your time.

Viva la revolucion.

So it turns out my Persephone has a reputation. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who knows. The people who got too close to her usually have some memento. Something permanent, in the process of healing.


Like I said, I don’t like Manhattan.

Like Brooklyn even less.

Personal reasons.

But I don’t like Brooklyn.

Never been to Staten Island. The Bronx only on business.

Queens I could take or leave.

But then, I’m from Jersey. Wrong side of the river. So maybe my aversion is hereditary.

Though to tell the truth, aversion and hereditary are both words my father never would have used. Might have cuffed me if he heard them coming out of my mouth.

He was a garbageman. A real one. The kind with garbage.

Didn’t like pretension.

Didn’t like the word pretension.

But he loved Jersey. That much he gave me.

I even tried to live in Brooklyn once, believe it or not. Didn’t take. But I tried it. Thanks to my wife.

I had a wife.

Believe it or not.

And I was a garbageman too, if you’re interested, a real one. The kind with garbage, like my dad. Left that too. Left most everything eventually.

Whatever hadn’t already been taken away.

Now I kill people.

The end.

People get upset when you say you kill people.

Fair enough.

But wait.

What if I told you I only kill serial killers?

It’s not true, but what if I told you that?

Now what if I told you I only kill child molesters? Or rapists? Or people who really deserve it?

Wavering yet?

Okay, now what if I told you I only kill people who talk loudly in movie theaters? Or block the escalator? Or cut you off in traffic?

Don’t answer. Think it over.

Not so self-righteous now.

I’m just kidding.

There’s no such thing as movie theaters anymore.

Subway, wheezing, barely makes it over the bridge, though I swear I feel that way every time.

The problem in this city used to be too many people. Now it’s not enough. And when only poor people use something, no one takes care of it. Roads, schools, neighborhoods. Subways too.

Rusted-out, empty, watch the track-slats pass as we travel. Moaning drunk curled in a corner, already done for the day. Pissed his pants, and not recently either.

Now to Brooklyn, that victim of tides.

My father took me to the beach once, pointed toward the water, eighty yards out. I thought, No way that ocean ever gets back to here. Two hours later, it was lapping at our ankles. And I thought, stupidly, No way it ever goes back out to there.

Money comes, the people come. Money goes, the people recede. After the blackouts they left, then after the boom they came back, then after the attacks they left again. Not everyone, of course. Just the people who’d tried to turn Brooklyn into the suburbs, got a whiff of a dirty bomb, figured fuck it, and moved to the regular suburbs.

Anyway, tide’s out now.

Brownstones are back to being barren. Concrete blocks where windowpanes went. Concrete blocks are the blind man’s stained glass, someone once told me.

After the attacks, the second ones, the whole borough emptied out. A boom, bust, and bang economy. The squatters and lesser vagrants just moved right back in. Like they were returning from a long vacation.

The Brooklyn camps in Prospect Park are more scattered, less crowded, less refugee pile‑up, more Cub Scout jamboree. Tambourines and Hacky Sacks. Come nuclear winter, Hacky Sacks will prevail. A lone sack, being hackyed, on some burnt-out horizon. We’ll know civilization, and jam bands, survived.

I ask around. Same stories. She moved through here, quickly. I could have guessed. Not long for camps. She seems to attract the unwanted element in the open air.

Luckily the next step isn’t too hard to figure. Supposedly she’s headed toward family. And it turns out that her father, T. K. Harrow, the most famous evangelist in America, has a famous financier brother living in Brooklyn.

Yes, I know the word financier. Just don’t ask me to say it out loud.

In my business, the disadvantage of the famous is that they draw more attention. The advantage is that you can find out almost anything you need to know in about fifteen minutes, either online, from public records, or through a few well-placed calls. Because you know who has a good idea of who lives where?


They notice. Know addresses. Not everyone. But the notable ones.

So I make a few well-placed calls.

Find out a certain Lyman Harrow lives in a mansion in Brooklyn Heights. Likes to throw things out. Expensive things.


People remember.

Which is why I keep a few well-paid contacts who are still in the garbage business. They’re not nosy.


A Conversation with Adam Sternbergh, Author of Shovel Ready

Though you've been a writer for years (as the Culture Editor of the New York Times Magazine, and Editor-at-Large of New York Magazine) Shovel Ready is your first foray into fiction. When did you know you wanted to write a novel?

I've always loved fiction and have dabbled in writing it, off and on, since college, working on various secret projects on the side. It just took me a long time—twenty years, actually—to finally figure out what kind of novel I wanted to write. That process started by asking myself: What kind of novel do I most want to read? Weirdly, the answer was a dystopian-near-future-NYC-garbageman-turned-hitman novel.

In Shovel Ready, a dirty bomb decimates Times Square and the city's elites become obsessed with "tapping in." While their bodies atrophy in tricked-out hospital beds, their minds roam a sophisticated virtual reality called "the limnosphere" where anything—or almost anything—is possible. Where did you come up with the idea of "limning," and is it something that might ever happen in our lifetime?

The idea of a virtual reality into which we can escape, partially or wholly, has been floating around for a while now, of course—from William Gibson's Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash to the Holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generation. But my own "aha" moment came during a reporting trip a few years back to the University of Illinois, where I entered a room called CUBE—a crude but entirely convincing 3D virtual environment I was actually able to experience firsthand. That made me realize just how close we are to something like the limnosphere. In fact, we seem to be getting ever closer to making something like that a reality—in forms as varied as the online game Second Life to the new Oculus Rift 3D gaming goggles that completely immerse you into a videogame.

Let's talk a bit about antiheroes. Yours, Spademan, is a garbage man-cum-hit man who turns a bon mot like Phillip Marlowe and kills with a box cutter. Did you ever worry that readers wouldn't like him?

I definitely hoped readers would warm up to him as the book rolls along—he may be a pitiless hitman, but he's a charming pitiless hitman. Plus, in many ways the book is all about how far Spademan has strayed from his humanity and what it takes to even begin to restore it. The antihero has a great tradition in American literature—from Sam Spade to Bud White in the James Ellroy novels to, yes, I'll say it, Wolverine—so there's a long history of people identifying with, and even rooting for, damaged characters who struggle with which moral lines they should, or shouldn't, cross.

Early reviews of Shovel Ready have name-checked such authors as Chuck Palahniuk, Don Winslow, Christopher Nolan, Warren Ellis, and Phillip K. Dick. Who are your heroes?

I'm definitely most well-versed in the world of hardboiled lit—writers like Ellroy, Chandler, Hammett, James Cain, and Donald Westlake's "Parker" novels, written as Richard Stark. I also love writers I think of as hardboiled, even if they don't write specifically about crime: From Joan Didion to Robert Stone to Kem Nunn to Cormac McCarthy to Graham Greene. As far as movies go, I think both Christopher Nolan, Alfonso Cuaron, and Rian Johnson are taking genre films to a new level of artistry—without sacrificing an ounce of what makes them so thrilling to begin with. That's a goal I definitely strive to emulate.

Shovel Ready is part mystery, part sci-fi, part noir, part dystopian thriller. That's a lot of things at once. When you tell people about the book, how do you describe it?

I usually say it's about a garbage man-turned-hit man in a near-future dystopian New York. If any of those things grab you, then we're definitely in business. One early reader described it to me as like a Parker novel, if Parker lived in the world of "Children of Men." That sounded about right too—and made me giddy, naturally.

What's next for Spademan?

I'm working on a second Spademan novel, which will be a true sequel to Shovel Ready, picking up the story about a year after Shovel Ready ends. Once you've read Shovel Ready, you'll know there are lots of situations and circumstances that are still to come to fruition, both miraculous and menacing—all of which will be tackled in book two.

Earlier this year, Shovel Ready was optioned for film. What can you tell us about this exciting news?

Warner Bros. stepped in very quickly to option the film rights, which was hugely gratifying for me—it's always nice, early in the process, to get that kind of vote of confidence. And from what I know, the project is proceeding very well—not least of which because Denzel Washington is now attached to star in the film. A two-time Oscar winner who also stars in great action films? You can't really ask for better than that.

Who have you discovered lately?

I really loved Megan Abbott's recent book Dare Me, which takes all the pleasures of classic noir and transposes them into a modern-day locker room full of viciously ambitious cheerleaders. Kelly Braffet's Save Yourself is also a great read: thoroughly unsettling while also being entirely thrilling. Lauren Beukes's The Shining Girls is getting all kinds of love, and rightly so. (And without trying at all, I just named three great female thriller writers—which is very satisfying in itself.) Thanks to a recommendation from Don Winslow—whose book Savages I really loved—I started reading Ken Bruen, an Irish crime writer whose books expertly straddle the line between crackling prose and heartbreaking poetry. I've had to pace myself so I don't rip through all his novels too quickly—I always want to know there's one more out there for me to read.

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Shovel Ready: A Novel 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is written with incredible stylistic precision - like a genre novel and a poem had a love child. The story is addictive, the characters are compelling and moving, the language is thrilling. I can't wait to see what Mr. Sternbergh (and Spademan) do next.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Believe this is one of the worst books I have ever tried to read. I never start a book and not finish it but I did this one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I received the second novel in this series as an ARC from work recently and I thoroughly enjoyed it! I went and picked up the first in the series (Shovel Ready) the next day. I really enjoyed the author's unique writing style and structure. The protagonist is entertaining to follow. Though the novel is somewhat dark and gritty, it is filled with sarcastic comic relief. I would highly recommend this to anyone who wants a new, unique, and enjoyable read. I look foward to reading more from this author in the future.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really can't believe that trash like this is actually published and peddled as literature. Even worse, I received in the mail today an offer from the Science Fiction Book Club for "Near Enemy", Part 2 of this trash saga, that positively swoons over Adam Sternbergh's tasteless trash. UGH! I've been a member of SFBC for more than fifty years and have witnessed a steady decline in the quality of the story-telling and -writing over the past few years that has me seriously wondering if the inmates of the asylum at the "Club" are at the helm now. I'm seriously rethinking that it is past time--well past time--to find another literature genre to occupy my interests if this kind of trash (it's not the first that has irritated me, only the latest) science fiction/fantasy has become.--AWB
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Dark subject, but very good read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pitch black noir that packs a punch.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
good story from a stream of consciousness point of view, simplistic but overall a decent   book fun easy summer read
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hard to follow. Plot too simplistic. Characters underdeveloped.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Theres this guy i like and we r best friends i want to ask him out but dont want to mess up our friendship i just dont know what to do please help~unsure