Shovel Ready is a savage, stylish stab at a convincingly chilling near-future. It’s blunt and brutal, written very much in the manner of the modern American novel. The result is a slim but gripping book, a plot in constant movement set in a starkly possible dystopia which feels as if it could be just around the corner.
In this tomorrow, New York has been hollowed out by fear and economic collapse following terrorist attacks which leave the city centre a haunted, radioactive no-go zone. It’s an underworld, populated by parasites, the helpless and the hopeless. Anyone who can afford the fees jacks into a virtual world of anything-goes fantasy lives, where online evangelists sell the perfect paradise. We hitch up with the nihilistic Spademan who grimly persists in the real world after losing his emotional anchor in the terrorist atrocity, and we’re dragged through the gutters on his latest assignment as a hitman.
Don’t expect much in the way of detailed description or extended explanation. The main characters are deftly but sparsely drawn, their histories revealed only when the action pauses. Brutalised by events and emotional trauma, Spademan views himself simply as a bullet and his victims’ deaths as inevitable. What could be a predictable storyline – he can’t bring himself to kill a young woman on the run and instead winds up as her protector – sidesteps the clichés of traditional gumshoe noir and subverts expectations with violent intensity and a couple of nifty plot twists that caught me by surprise. In places it’s a brutal and blunt as Andrews Vachss’ Burke series.
Shovel Ready is a short slice of vivid realisation; easy to read, in the main, and delivered with the assurance of an accomplished author. However, the stylised use of speech as standard text does make it hard to tell the difference between narration and speech at times. So instead of adding to the atmosphere this stunt-storytelling device actually detracted from the action while I puzzled out whether someone was speaking at the time…
The core themes of Shovel Ready all feel quite familiar, as does the character of the Spademan himself – the hitman with a heart who breaks his own rules about who he’ll kill. The sequences in the virtual world owe a lot to The Matrix, while the behaviour of the potential target was traditional Hollywood spoiled brat behaving in a totally irrational manner (which tends to jolt me out of the moment, unfortunately).
But the narration and dialogue more than makes up for those flaws. It’s diamond-cut hard-boiled pulp-fiction hard-ass, straight out of the golden age, just begging to be converted into a film script. And really, what’s not to like about a cross between Philip Marlowe, Rick Deckard and Neo?
Adam Sternbergh’s next book will definitely be one to look out for…
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh is available in print and ebook formats at Amazon