Adam Sternbergh’s debut novel, Shovel Ready, is a lean, dark thriller nestled in the heart of a dystopian New York not too far in the future. In the aftermath of terrorism, the city’s been left a shell of its former self, degraded to the level directors like John Carpenter and Walter Hill imagined. To survive in this brutal environment, some people have simply receded; they hide behind security doors and security guards, lost in immersive online worlds that became popular just before everything went to hell. Others huddle in camps resembling something between Occupy Wall Street gatherings and Hoovertowns, trying to build some kind of community among the forgotten.
Then there are those who need to keep working and moving, and the antihero at the center of this book is one of that group. Calling himself Spademan, he transitioned from legit garbageman to killer for hire in a world where that’s become a viable way to make a living. In his own words he’s “just the bullet”, it’s up to the people who hire him to live with the consequences. You give him a name, pay him his fee, and the job’s done, normally with his weapon of choice: his trusty box cutter.
The job at the center of this one is a problem for him, though. Normally hands off once the target falls into one of the few categories he won’t kill, Spademan finds himself stepping in to protect the girl he’s been sent after, and that leads down a dark and painful path. She’s tied to powerful men who view everyone around them as either sheep to be fleeced or roaches to be crushed, and have no qualms slotting Spademan into the latter category.
Which brings me to a brief aside, wondering what makes us follow antiheroes down these paths? Spademan is an anonymous killer, who won’t even tell us his real name. He’s upfront about what he is, we know it walking in the door. Why do we stay? In Sternbergh’s book it’s largely because of his voice as a character. In the maw of a crumbling world, he’s pragmatic and honest. There’s a dark, wry, cynical humor in his delivery. He doesn’t approach his work with ruthlessness; he’s a blue-collar guy. His world is brutal, and he’s just doing what’s necessary to function in it.
His opponents put a sheen on what they do, and in contrast Spademan’s honesty seems more trustworthy. Of course he’s also the narrator, and it’s always fun riding shotgun with a narrator who sounds trustworthy, even while behaving in ways that should make you question him. Donald Westlake mastered that trick in The Ax, and Adam Sternbergh does a pretty good job executing it as well.
Sternbergh keeps everything brisk; you know the weight on and around Spademan, but you don’t feel it, until you’ve gotten too close to get away. Peppered within his story, Spademan teases and hints, and each little breadcrumb leads you a little further into who he really is. There are heartbreaking moments hiding under the tough exterior, and Sternbergh, like his narrator, knows that the best way to draw blood is to get you in really, really close before striking.
Along the way there are a couple of extra twists that didn’t really seem necessary, but those are minor considering they’re mixed in with some beautifully executed ones you’ll have a tough time shaking. There’s also a very welcome door left open for additional installments, and I’m glad for it. I’m eager to spend more time with Spademan.