Novels based on alternate histories or that take place on different versions of earth can have advantages for both readers and authors. For example, writers can choose to use certain aspects of the world as we know it for a base, saving them from having to create an entirely new world. Readers then, already familiar with the story's surroundings, can focus on the details are unique to the author's particular version of society and the story that arises from it.
Adam Sternbergh's vision of New York in Shovel Ready is a far cry from the bustling center of commerce and culture with which many of us are familiar. It's all thanks to a dirty bomb in Times Square a few years ago, a bomb that eventually drove away the swarms of tourists and regular folks and sent the rich upper crust into secluded half-lives in their condos. The everyman moved to California, to Florida, to wherever they could find where life didn't involve wearing a radiation detector around your neck like a fashion device. People rich enough to escape into high-class seclusion plugged themselves into the virtual reality of the limnosphere, leaving their bodies attached to feeding tubes and brain scanners in their empty, high-class homes. Thankfully Mr. Spademan, our protagonist, has taken on a profession that's always in demand; murder for hire.
Aside from not killing children and not wanting to know your reasons, Spademan has very few rules. As far as he's concerned, there are plenty of ways to kill someone if you really want to. He's just another one of them, a tool. But he's forced to reconsider his passive self-image when he's engaged to kill a runaway 18-year-old with connections to a powerful megachurch. Thankfully Spademan has the requisite tools and connections to navigate New York's seedy underbelly, but with powerful enemies after him and his new charge, there's no guarantee that any of them will get out alive.
Reading Sternbergh's writing is like watching classic film noir, or reading a dark, suspenseful graphic novel. It's a quick-moving story that sweeps the reader right along with it, even as the characters themselves struggle to stay on top of the changing circumstances. The language is direct, visceral, but still artistic in its descriptions of pretty much everything, from the empty condos of the wealthy to Spademan's descriptions of what happened to New York after the dirty bomb. But perhaps it shines best in Spademan's running mental commentary and observations while dealing with his enemies. It's difficult to explain, but the harsh descriptions of things like slitting a man's throat or the slump of a dead body is communicated in simple, elegant speech that is direct but not gratuitous. It's a delicate balance between shock and frankness that Sternbergh maintains throughout the novel.
Almost the entire book is from Spademan's perspective, with some scenes for which he isn't present played out in the third person. There are no quotations marks used, but don't be alarmed; it's surprisingly easy to follow the conversations. Formatting techniques and short, to-the-point exchanges dotted with observations and actions help to avoid confusion, and to my mind helped to reflect Spademan's personality as a whole.
This is a brutal, wonderfully written read driven by one man in a world that he's learned to navigate and assimilate into when others have fled. If you like stories like The Punisher or Sin City (the movies or the graphic novels, in all honesty), you'll want to pick up a copy of Adam Sternbergh's Shovel Ready sooner rather than later. It was originally released in January and is available now at your neighborhood bookstore.