The OF Blog: Adam Sternbergh, Shovel Ready

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Adam Sternbergh, Shovel Ready

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. (pp. 4-5)

Noir is perhaps the most distinctive literary genre.  Its staccato sentence bursts, fragments compounding, syntactical gaps left for readers to fill in the blanks – these are some of its narrative trademarks.  It is also a very violent style, as the short, sharp sentences convey this sense of abruptness, of some force crashing into another.  It is a style that occasionally appeals to me, although there are times that less is not more, that I am left wanting some of those gaps filled in order to ensure that I do not miss an important bit of information. 

Adam Sternbergh's debut novel, Shovel Ready, combines noir elements with a post-nuclear, post-apocalyptic setting.  Spademan, a former garbage man who is now a hit man years after a "dirty bomb" and related terrorist attacks devastated New York City's core, has been presented with an attractive case:  kill the daughter of a megachurch pastor.  Yet he cannot bring himself to do this after discovering that she is pregnant and that her own father was the one who impregnated her.  His mission turns from killing her to protecting her and exacting revenge on her father.  It is not the most original of tales, yet sometimes entertaining stories can emerge from stock material.

The narrative depends upon Spademan's point-of-view to carry the brunt of the load.  Certainly this is a fascinating character, as his backstory slowly emerges in his narrative.  Hard, yes, but with a surprisingly funny dark sense of humor, as seen in this aside after a previous hit job:

The most holy relic, by the way, is the Eucharist.  The communion wafer that's the literal flesh of Christ, transmuted the moment you receive it on your tongue.

Like I told you, I took First Communion.

If you believe in that sort of thing.

Edible flesh.

The holiest ritual.

But don't worry.

I didn't eat the lawyer.

But I did take some souvenirs. (p. 168)

If it weren't for this macabre humor, Shovel Ready easily could have collapsed under the weight of its artifices.  The complex, meandering path from Spademan's initial encounter with the daughter to his eventual arrival at the pastor's compound takes some getting used to, as Sternbergh jumps back and forth in narrative time.  The post-nuclear setting felt a bit too contrived, as though it were only a mere plot device in order to establish the gruesome environs in which Spademan operates.  Yet despite this sense of a stock, underdeveloped setting, Shovel Ready largely works because the Spademan character is so fascinating that the reader almost looks forward in anticipation to his next witty repartée after he kills another victim.

This violence, although largely shown in its aftermath rather than the moment of its brutal occurrence, can be a bit much at times.  However, there is something to be said for narrative and audience expectations and for the most part, Shovel Ready's violence is within the norms of noir literature.  Certainly it is not gratuitous violence, at least not in the sense of there being relatively more descriptions paid to the deaths than to other events.  Yet the deaths are narrated in such a deadpan fashion that the reader may find herself shivering slightly after contemplating just what sort of personality type Spademan might actually be.  I myself have conflicted feelings about how this character is portrayed:  I get the point behind him and find his witticisms amusing, but part of me is disturbed by just how casual the violence is at times.  It's not something that detracts from the flow of Sternbergh's narrative, but it is something that made me pause a few times in reading it.

Despite this slight unease, Shovel Ready is one of the better-written recent noir novels that I've read.  The action moves at a crisp pace, only occasionally getting bogged down in establishing Spademan's backstory.  Spademan's characterization is very well-done, while the others could have used a slight more fleshing out to make them even better.  Sternbergh's prose is effective, helping raise Shovel Ready above the clichéd story it so easily could have been.  A very good debut effort, with only a few minor flaws marring it.  Highly recommended to those who enjoy noir fiction.

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