There’s a quote – attributed to Oscar Wilde but of questionable providence – that “every first novel is the author as Jesus or as Faust”. Although I suspect that Carter Chase, the protagonist of Niketown, is super heavily informed by vern, he’s just kind of some asshole. And for that I am glad.
I admit that I love vern’s movie reviews and his classic work Seagalogy, so when he announced on his site that he’d written a novel I was intrigued and perfectly happy to give it a try. He talks about literature sometimes in his reviews, so I know that he really likes Donald Westlake’s “Parker” books and Elmore Leonard, stuff like that. And he classifies it as a crime novel, so I was wondering if this was going to be something like The Hunter. Which is something I can totally get behind, after all.
And it sort of starts out that way. Carter Chase has just gotten out of the joint after doing a bid of unspecified length for burglary. We know his passport is almost but not quite expired, so it was less than ten years; it probably wasn’t too much less though since he’s not really used to the ubiquity of cell and smart phones. So we get to find out a little bit about him, the robberies he used to do, how he ended up in prison in the first place. We quickly find out that Carter’s an intelligent guy, but as a criminal he’s no Moriarty or even Parker. Mostly he just grabbed stuff and ran off with it. And when he finally does get busted, his comment on reviewing the security footage in holding is simply “I was told it would be blurry”.
So he did that time for stealing a bunch of shoes from a Niketown store, and you think at first that maybe he’s out to get revenge on his co-conspirators who fingered him and didn’t go down themselves. Those guys, incidentally, are also a bunch of complete asshole losers as well. I’m pretty sure that vern must have actually known people like this, they just seem perfectly rendered. For that matter they’d all be perfectly at home in an Elmore Leonard novel, and I mean this as high praise.
Then . . . it doesn’t go exactly like I was expecting. I figured maybe we were going to do a classic revenge tale where Carter gets his own back from these guys, or possibly a big score novel where he gets pulled back into a life of crime. But no, he gets a straight job as one of those guys who wears the mattress outside on the street by the mattress store, later at a hot dog stand. He develops an appreciation for avant garde food, although it’s against his initial principles to pay more than $10 for a meal. Oh, and he’s also crashing in his brother’s duplex, since he was supposed to pick Carter up from prison and then can’t be found, although he left his phone and computer there. Odd. Coincidental? Carter’s not sure, but among the things he isn’t, he also isn’t Philip Marlowe. Nonetheless, he does try to find his brother.
There’s also quite a bit of culture shock for Carter getting out of jail, not being used to the world around, never having seen an iPod or a smartphone and wondering if they even make CDs anymore. The real world hopefully isn’t quite this bad, since they’re also putting advertisements on gravestones these days. When Carter is burying his mom he has to choose which sponsor should appear when people walk by. The director suggests Pepsi, since they’ve got the best residuals.
It’s certainly not out-and-out slapstick, though. Carter is afraid he’s an asshole, but he’s also surrounded by assholes. He doesn’t go around trying to scare people, but that time in the joint has been pretty rough on him. For that matter he’s pretty good in a fight, too, but the fights he can win aren’t the ones that end up mattering to him. And maybe a little revenge is in order too.
Throughout this book there are a couple of major shifts in tone and a couple of major surprises. For a first novel this is handled in probably the best form I’ve ever seen. There’s good foreshadowing without anything being telegraphed ahead of time. And some of the stuff is maybe a little implausible, but only to the extent that this is a work of fiction and that there is in fact a point being made here. In fact I feel like even talking about it too much will spoil the fun.
This isn’t the sort of thing that gets read in upper-class literature classes fifty years from now, but it’s the best damn thing I’ve read in months. I bet that vern could have written a straight-up hard boiled crime thriller if he wanted to, but he didn’t, and it’s even better this way. And it’s on sale for $4.99 on the Kindle store right now, so why wait?