& Review: Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh

Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh. Fiction. Publisher: Broadway Books

Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh.
Fiction. Publisher: Broadway Books

The Book Itself: An eerie image: blood-red city on a background of pitch black. It matches the mood of the novel: graphic, ominous, blurred lines for characters and readers.

My Review: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 worlds–the wasteland reality and the slick fantasy–to finish his job, clear his conscience, and make sure he’s not the one who winds up in the ground.”

This is not a “nice” novel. Nothing really happy happens in it. No one has a happy past, no one gets to dwell in happy memories for long. And it tries plenty of times to turn you away. To disgust you and shock you. Grisly murders, tortured backstories, rape, drugs, cult-like religion, addiction, incest, murder, murder, murder….and no quotations for dialogue.

Honestly, I don’t understand the stylistic choice for that last one. All conversation is told in spare, brief sentences, no quotations, no dialogue tags to outline who is speaking when. The mood of the story is very noir: think everything in dark lighting, a surly anti-hero, the dark side of humanity at every turn. Conversations are quick, and everyone seems to speak in one syllable words. But if I’m to read these scenes quickly, quotation marks would go a long way in making that easier. Sometimes it was hard to tell who was speaking, and whether or not this short sentence was someone speaking, an action someone was performing, or a description of the setting. There weren’t a ton of instances of this, but enough to make it irksome.

Sternbergh certainly knows how to ramp up a scene, though. And he knows how to make a character complicated. That person who just murdered someone? You’re going to be rooting for them in about twenty pages. Think Spademan is a poor man with a tortured past, just doing what he has to do to live in a tortured world? Wait until you hear what he has in his freezer.”Anti-hero” has a lot of complicated connotations, but I appreciated the little efforts here and there to both turn you against, and then make you root for, the next horrible thing a character does.

So Spademan operates in a post-apocalyptic New York. Surprisingly, only New York seems to be affected. The bombings and mass destruction and terrorism stop at the state line. According to Spademan, other states, even some neighborhoods far from the center of Times Square, are perfectly fine, running as normal. At the beginning of the story, I thought the entire world was like that: the rich retreating into their shells, the poor toughing it out on crime-riddled streets. I wonder if future novels (the second installment, Near Enemy, comes out in January (AND HOLY CRAP, THAT’S NEXT MONTH! WHEN DID IT BECOME THE END OF THE YEAR?!)) will explore that territory: places where everything is fine. It might provide an interesting juxtaposition.

So despite the nitty gritty, the nastiness of the subject matter, and the frustration with quotation marks, this is a pretty great book. It’s a fast read, the action doesn’t stop, and there is enough there to base a series from. If you can stomach the tough subject matter, you’re in for a wild ride.

My Grade: B


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