Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Review: BLACKBIRDS by Chuck Wendig

I have a problem:  I cannot seem to go into Barnes and Noble without buying a book.  I love books.  I love reading.  There’s just something about a book—the cover, the back copy, the blurbs explaining how such-and-such loved the book so much they want to have its book babies—that makes me need to own them.  All of them.  Honestly, I think it might be the potential.  An unread book contains so much potential to be awesome or suck, to be fantastic and deep or silly and shallow, to be skull-shatteringly brilliant or ball-crushingly awful.  I love that feeling of anticipation you get when you pick up a book that looks intriguing, you read the back copy and you think I have to read this.  I have to have this books information inside of me.  And so I buy them.  Lots of them.  Nookbooks, physical books…lots and lots of books.  I have to own them all.

Because I’m about to have quite a bit of down time, I’ve been especially book-buy-ingy lately.  I don’t know why.  I guess I’m afraid I’ll get bored?  I like to think that it’s because so many fantastic books chose this time to come out.  I’ve bought the new Dark Tower novel from Stephen King, John Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation in paperback, Kevin Hearne’s new Iron Druid novel Tricked, and I even bought one of the new editions of the John Carter novel The Princess of Mars to give the series a try.  I vowed, after all of those things, to stop buying books for a while.  So, when I’d had a spectacularly shitty week and I needed to unwind, my goal, when entering Barnes and Noble, was simply to calm down.  To window shop and add to my mental wishlist, and largely to kill time until it was time to see The Avengers, which the wife and I had bought tickets to see at 10.  It was, like, 6:00.  We had some time to kill.  And so I wandered.

That’s when I saw it.  I heard about it all over Twitter.  I’d seen the author mentioning it and retweeting good reviews.  I had to admit, I was intrigued.  So I picked it up—Chuck Wendig’s newest novel Blackbirds.

So I picked it up to flip through.  I figured if I liked it, I’d add it to my mental wishlist and ask for it for Christmas—or maybe pick it up later in the summer when we had a little more money.  I sat down with my wife, who was flipping through a book or a magazine or something to kill the time until the movie.  The next thing I knew, it was 9:30, we needed to head to the movie theater to find seats for the movie, and I was 1/3 of the way through the book.  Such is the power of this novel—that’s right.  Hidden inside the pages of Wendig’s new book is a tiny TARDIS that makes you the master of time and space!

Blackbirds is the story of Miriam Black, a punky, foul-mouthed woman in her early twenties that lives the life of a drifter.  Her life has been nothing but booze, cigarettes, motel rooms, and strange men.  Oh, and death.  See, she can see how you die.  Well, you and everyone else.  All it takes is a little skin on skin and she can see how and when, and even, in a more general sense, where you’ll die.

Such a gift is, of course, absolutely horrifying.  One thing about death, there’s a reason it’s called the Great Equalizer.  We glamorize death in movies and books and stories, but the truth is Death is a gruesome, awful, often pathetic exit from this world’s stage.  Old fogies rotting in a hospital bed, surrounded by sad-eyed relatives; douchebags doing douchebag things and dying in horribly violent—although often well-deserved—ways; well-meaning people dying in equally painful and horrifying ways because they suffer from the great human condition of Not Knowing Everything.  This is what Miriam sees every time she meets someone.  Every hand shake introduces her to not only you, but also you at your absolute lowest moment as you sashay off of this mortal coil.

Cheerful, right?


Now, all of this death and despair can warp a person.  And it does.  Miriam is like that Tupperware lid you forgot to take out of your dishwasher—warped all to hell and impossible to fit back where it used to.  Whenever she finds someone who’s about to die in one way or another fairly soon, she sticks around with them, follows them to that place, and waits for it to happen.  Afterward, she picks them clean of their cash and credit cards.  She says that it’s practical. They don’t need it anymore, and she does.  Life.  Just like carrion birds pick meat off of corpses, which is imagery that comes up again and again in the books, even in little ways, like the color that Miriam dyes her hair (Blackbird Black).

The worst part about this particular talent—Miriam would probably pass out in a fit of cackling if I were so dense to call it a “gift”—is that there appears to be no way to stop these horrible events.  In fact, whenever she tries, that just seems to play into Fate’s hand and she ensures their death herself.  Just like a popular Disney Channel show, this book features a female psychic with the ability the see the future, and her attempts to deter such events only ensure their happening exactly as she saw them.  Only, you know…with sex…and drugs…and swearing…and horrible, horrible bloody deaths.

Wendig paints with a gruesome and vulgar brush, and I loved every second of it.  Miriam is such a mirthless, sarcastic character that her dour pessimism often had me laughing out loud in enjoyment, but then, I’ve always been drawn to the snarky, pissed at the world characters.  She’s cold, she does terrible things for terrible reasons, and she has to be one of the most well-rounded, most sympathetic characters I’ve ever read.

Miriam isn’t the only well rounded character.  The cast is a cavalcade of broken, sad characters, beautifully rendered with Wendig’s talent for characterization.  Each time one of his characters acts or speaks in anyway, it adds new layers to their motivation, their drive, and what makes them tick.  Chuck also took a character-type that I normally love—the care-free, fool-hardy, rakishly good looking man with no regard for his or anyone else’s well-being, and made me despise him in such a way that every time he came into a scene, I wanted to scream and tear my hair out.  Don’t take this to mean he was poorly written or boring.  Just the opposite.  He’s just so disgustingly well-written that I wanted Miriam to string him up by his pubes in a circus bear’s cage and coat his genitals with honey.  A fantastic character that infuriated me in much the same way that Malfoy did in the Harry Potter novels, and left me salivating for Miriam to get her comeuppance.

Wendig’s voice is also commendably entertaining.  While I love Wendig’s website, in which he dispenses writing advice in massive chunks of 25, I was a little worried that his novel would be as over-the-top as his blog.  That was a silly fear, and I should have known better.  Wendig is devilishly funny, yes, but it’s often in a reserved way.  He knows when to be irreverent and when to be genuine.  In a way, it reminded me of Stephen King, but not so much that it seemed like he was copying his voice.  There were just hints here and there that struck me as particularly Kingly—which is a huge compliment from me, because Stephen King features my favorite writing voice of all time.

One final bit of praise that I can lay on this book is that I love the tense that it’s written in.  The book is entirely in present tense, which adds a tension to the novel that is absolutely genius.  After all, a large portion of the novel concerns the future and fate, and a novel being told in present tense keeps everything very mysterious.  Will Miriam survive all of her ordeals, what about everyone else?  It’s like getting a play by play.  You’re hooked and you’re forced to keep turning pages to see how things will turn out.  And since Miriam knows how things will end (for others at least) you can only hold your breath that maybe she’ll be wrong...just once.

God bless you, Wendig, for a rip-roaring good read.  I’ll definitely snatch up Mockingbird when it comes out.