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Review: Mike Barnes’s The Adjustment League is a crackling portrait of a troubled mind

In The Adjustment League, Mike Barnes’ premise is that psychiatric conditions can be superpowers of a kind.

The Adjustment League
Mike Barnes

Mike Barnes could likely make a book about a chiropractors' union interesting. But the titular gang of his new novel echoes the Justice League, wherein Wonder Woman and friends nobly dispatch evil. In case you were hoping for bone-cracking, there's some of that, too. It makes for a densely packed bullet of a read.

Barnes's intriguing premise is that psychiatric conditions can be superpowers of a kind. His protagonist, known only as The Super, maintains a ratty apartment building after years in treatment for the bipolar disorder that lost him his family (it's no surprise his ex-wife's name is Lois).

The Super begins the book in a manic frenzy, "hyper-time" as he calls it, when he hardly sleeps. He's the voice of the novel, and the prose is suitably smart, juddery, and looping. This man is a watcher, too. He knows the window before his inevitable depressive shutdown is closing, and when he's drawn into a murky situation by an old friend from the psych ward, his brain races faster, taking him to the bottom of a rich family's secrets.

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Hints from comics dot the book. There's a pow-bam-zap cheerfulness to some of the violence. The Super uses The Thing's catch phrase – "It's clobberin' time" – and his old friend Judy is a kind of Invisible Woman, cloaking herself within her schizophrenia. Moreover, one bad guy is nicknamed "The Sandman." Aside from being a Marvel Comics villain, that's also, of course, a stand-in for the god of sleep, and Barnes neatly pulls in ancient myth, too.

The good-versus-evil smackdown has always been the root of hero stories, comic or mythic. Barnes brings on an epic battle here, making champions of all his vulnerable characters. An intuitive boy classified as "learning disabled," for instance, seems to The Super to have instead "a problem of translation … constantly meeting people from another world, or many other worlds, and struggling to find crude signs and gestures that will allow some sort of rudimentary exchange." A woman with Alzheimer's leaves hints that lead The Super to the rotten heart of the mystery, where he can "adjust" things fairly.

So how about the evil? They're the rich and influential, those who believe "the delusion that choices and talent and effort were … the chief architects" of the good life. These villains are sick, too, but fail to recognize it, upholstered by their selfishness and wealth. They're well drawn, but when the story heads into the swamp of sexual abuse, it leaves us half-wishing for a different version of badness. As critics have lately noted, rape has become a shortcut for writers looking to motivate characters to action. Here, it becomes a cipher for absolute vulnerability, and brings in the male-female aspect of power dynamics, but Barnes might have given the book a different depth with an evil less expected, especially as his characterization is so fresh.

Indeed, The Adjustment League's superpower is in its crackling portraits. The Super takes his place in the queue of great damaged detectives (see Sherlock Holmes). His sense of time's warping is contagious, and though he can be long-winded, his language and observations draw us straight into his head. Portraying a psychologically troubled character in the first person could read as gimmicky, but Barnes shapes a "believable, lived-in person," the type his protagonist most admires. It's this Superman's mind that's stronger than steel.

Alix Hawley is the author of All True Not a Lie in It.

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