My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Fantastic book: unrelentingly gritty and violent, with a protagonist so determinedly flawed she wears it as a badge of honour. A genuine sense of danger pervades every page, as Miriam Black; Louis Darling, the trucker she inadvertently suckers into her road trip; and the cabal of pursuers who aren’t really even after her until they discover what she can do with the special power she has inherited chase after each other through an unremittingly grey and despoiled American landscape that feels real purely because it is so wide-horizoned and desolate. It’s the flip side of the sun-drenched panorama we see in so many ‘American Landscape’ stories– an endless repetition of shitty motels, black-tarmac vistas and chain link fences that wears down those who travel it, and the reader as well, leaving everyone vulnerable to the regular bouts of petty violence that Wendig drops into the story.
This gravel-rubbed weariness pervades even the characters themselves: there’s little in the way of positive human emotion here, and even the violence and treachery engaged in by almost everyone seems worn-through, ritualised. There are no roles to be played here: of the two main female characters, one is physically oversensitised to the point of isolation and the other has buried her gender under so many layers of indifference that she verges on gender neutral; and the males exist in a nebulous behavioural zone defined only by surviving each moment as it arrives. Even the sex is unsatisfactory: yearned for as a way of touching something genuine in another person, but ultimately just an increasingly empty and hopeless gesture. It is only Miriam’s endless desire to break away from the very comforts she yearns for, over and over, which give urgency to those around her.
If all this sounds depressing, it is, but Wendig’s skill is in making us care for what happens despite the fact that every character in the novel is more or less a giant shit of some kind or other, as well as an ability to consistently crank up the stress and pace of each narrative moment until the whole thing is unbearably taut.
Reading this book is like watching a bridge cable overextend, waiting for the moment it snaps and sends everybody tumbling into the water below when you’d be far better off just running like hell for the far end of the bridge.
It’s all good, clean, American fun.