Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh

Shovel ReadyTitle: Shovel Ready
Adam Sternbergh
14 January 2014
Crown Publishing
science fiction, thriller, noir, dystopia
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Spademan used to be a garbageman, but that was before a dirty bomb and a series of other terrorist attacks killed his wife and turned New York into an empty toxic shell of a city. Now he’s a hitman. Which is also a kind of waste disposal.

His latest mark is an eighteen year old runaway named Grace Chastity Harrow, who is now going by the name Persephone. Her father is T.K. Harrow, a wealthy and powerful evangelist who Persephone has somehow betrayed. Spademan likes to keep his jobs as simple as possible, but this one quickly becomes complicated when Persephone reveals a secret that stops Spademan from killing her. It’s classic noir – the dame in distress whose troubles tug at the cynical protagonist’s hardened heart and get him tangled up in a more complicated and dangerous plot than he expected.

In this case, it’s because Persephone knows some disturbing secrets that would ruin her father’s holier-than-thou reputation and thwart a highly profitable new scheme that he’s set up – a highly realistic, biblically accurate virtual-reality heaven. By protecting Persephone, Spademan essentially opens his arms to some very powerful and utterly ruthless enemies.

I don’t read (or watch) much noir fiction, but from what I know of the genre I’d say that Adam Sternbergh has captured the tone perfectly. The writing is lean and edgy, simultaneously blunt and razor sharp. Sternbergh strips Spademan’s narration down to the brusque basics. He doesn’t even use quotation marks, which is easy to get used to but can be confusing. Sometimes you have to backtrack and figure out who is speaking, or if Spademan is just thinking rather than speaking aloud (and if you’re reading an ebook with messed up formatting that doesn’t have line breaks in the proper places – like a pirated eBook, for example – you’re fucked).

But I think the lack of quotation marks suits the blunt style and Spademan’s equally blunt character. He the typically dispirited anti-hero of noir fiction, the bad guy who takes it upon himself to be the good guy in a corrupt world.

Spademan is very strict about keeping his interaction with his clients down to the most basic requirements. He doesn’t want to know their reasons. He doesn’t need to justify what he does or live with it, because that’s what his clients have to do when they hire him. He is just a bullet, an action.

He kills men and women because he doesn’t discriminate, but he draws the line at children – he’s not that kind of psycho. His weapon of choice is a box cutter – easy to obtain and easy to hide but very effective. It kept reminding me of the very real terrorist attacks that happened in New York – planes crashing into the Twin Towers after being hijacked by men wielding box cutters. If this association with terrorists is deliberate, I wonder why Sternbergh chose this weapon for his character, who still hasn’t gotten over the death of his wife in a terrorist bombing. However, it does have a very apt sense of anger and disillusionment about it. It’s an unassuming but efficient weapon with which the disempowered defeat the powerful. I love this line from Spademan:

I may have once had some thin faith in something like cosmic justice, but now I believe in box-cutters.

It’s a belief that serves him well in this ravaged New York, where radiation poisoning is a daily threat. I wouldn’t call this a post-apocalyptic though, because the bombings were restricted to New York. The rest of the world, and the rest of America, is carrying on as usual, except for any problems caused by the loss of New York (but the novel doesn’t get into that).

The bombs didn’t actually kill that many people. Instead it killed New York’s tourist industry, and that eventually killed New York. Most people left, but many stayed – the poor, stubborn squatters, people with unusual business requirements, and of course dodgy underworld types who profit from lawless environments. There are also loads of wealthy people who don’t really live in the city because they spend most of their time in a virtual reality known as the limnosphere. This is basically a customisable online space, and while you’re in there your body is lying in a bed with a bunch of life-support tubes. The warehouses in the industrial area of Tribeca are full of rich people in beds.

I find this a tad unlikely though. If you’re going to spend all your time in virtual reality, then it doesn’t matter where you live, but if you’re rich, why not do it in a safe environment with reliable medical care, instead of a toxic lawless city? Many of Spademan’s marks are withered bed-ridden dreamers; he just walks in and slits their throats while they sleep. The seedier dens that cater to less upmarket clients make sense, but not the luxury versions.

Despite that snag however, I do like the concept of the limnosphere, largely because of spoilery stuff that I won’t reveal. And a rather likeable character who appears as a hot avenging angel when he’s needed most. Part of the plot plays out in the limnosphere, although Spademan prefers to avoid it having been addicted to it in the past.

His history is full of dark and tragic details that Spademan reveals over the course of the narrative. One of the words used to describe the book in the blurb is “tender” which I thought was a bit odd until I learned more about Spademan. It doesn’t detract from his edgy character, but it does add a wounded human side. I won’t give you any of the details; it’s nicer just to read them yourself.

Other words used to describe the book include “gritty, violent, funny, riveting”, and although I’m not so sure about the “funny” part, I agree that it’s all of those other things. A good quick and dirty thriller.

Downsides? Yes, there were some things I didn’t like. Sometimes, and particularly towards the end, a lot of information is withheld from the reader to maintain suspense, and with the terse writing style things start to get confusing.

The are also few women in the story, and although some of them are central to the plot, they have little or no control over it. Like Spademan’s wife, who is important largely because she died.

Persephone is the most important female character, not to mention the character whose actions set the plot in motion, but she is relegated to the role of damsel in distress in what is primarily Spademan’s story. In fact, there are two occasions in which the characters analyse the situation and decide that this is essentially a struggle between Spademan and T.K. Harrow, with Persephone as little more than a pawn. She does at least end up playing a more active role than pawn and proves to be extremely fucking deadly with a knife, but she still gets sidelined way too much. Sternbergh might be sticking to the conventions of the genre, but he didn’t have to go that far.

Common gender pitfalls aside though, it’s good read. Check it out.

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