Adam Sternbergh’s debut novel is told in the first person by Spademan (not his real name) who lost his wife in a terrorist attack on Times Square, and became a hit man for whoever can call his number and pay the bills in a world dominated by escapism and terror. But he has one rule: he doesn’t kill children. And when televangelist T.K. Harrow hires him to snuff out the life of his daughter, Persephone AKA Grace, Spademan’s reluctance puts him in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse.
The world Spademan inhabits is separated even more sharply by the haves and the have-nots, as the rich have retreated more and more into a cyber world where their every wish is granted and their problems are left behind while they ’sleep.’ There’s a stream of sci-fi history running through Sternbergh’s influences, from Philip K. Dick to The Surrogates to The Matrix. The world still exists but what’s real and what’s fantasy are becoming less and less divided.
Harrows’ influence on the world is gripping: he’s offering a ‘why wait?’ program, where ‘true believers’ can experience heaven now, but he knows that (in a bit of sci-fi intrigue) people respond better with real people and not just chemical balance, so he starts tapping into sleepers who are just ‘playmates’ for others. It’s a portrayal of classicist behavior mixed in with the warped way that televangelists have factored in people’s desire to belong to something, and manipulated it for their financial benefit.
Sternbergh, the culture editor for The New York Times Magazine, doesn’t mince words, even if he eschews punctuation when it comes to dialogue. This is heady stuff pushed down into simple form, like recognizing that there’s more going on in the works of Mickey Spillane and Robert B. Parker than simple banter. It’s an easy read from a storytelling perspective (I read it in one sitting) but it’s subversively complex, and may need to be read twice! Not for the faint of heart, Sternbergh delves into Spademan’s executions, delivers salty dialogue, and shows us the worst in humanity. But it also shows that even in the midst of death and despair, humanity rises.
See, Spademan isn’t as lost a soul as we might think. Sure, he’s an anti-hero, but… where does his moral code come from? How much of his Catholic (I’m guessing) background drive his decision not to kill Persephone? What makes him wade in and fight Harrows when he could’ve given her up, or left the area all together? Something makes him stop… some spark.
Sternbergh’s use of the Eucharistic imagery, and his decision to use a TV evangelist as the villain, show a decidedly religious (or anti-religious) slant. The “why wait for heaven” money grab is disturbing… but it echoes the way that many look at the kingdom of God. Rather than relationally, it’s about checking it off one’s list, and articulating it in a way that ends up being all about them… rather than about the way we relate to God. Sternbergh calls ‘foul’ here, but does so through the lens of science fiction; that doesn’t mean we can’t look at how the church is perceived in the here-and-now, and re-evaluate.
Sternbergh’s delivery is pretty awesome, and I can’t wait to read the next story in the Spademan chronicles. Who knows where the author will take us? I doesn’t matter: it’ll be intense.