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Shovel Ready: Hard-boiled, cyberpunk, noir – how to classify this novel?

Shovel Ready
Adam Sternbergh

"I kill men. I kill women because I don't discriminate." Spademan, an ex-garbage-man-turned-hit-man, is clear about his purpose in Adam Sternbergh's first novel, Shovel Ready. Spademan lives in a future Hoboken across the river from Manhattan. When he takes on a new case, it's from a client with enough canny to find his ever-changing phone number. He gets the name of a target person, money in full and doesn't ask questions. But when he gets a commission for a girl named Grace Chastity Harrow, daughter of a famous evangelist, he pauses for just long enough to establish if she is over the age of 18. "I don't kill children because that's a different kind of psycho." This pause, of course, leads to trouble.

Shovel Ready has the feel of a book with many influences, sort of like a car put together from scrap parts. The author notes his study of the hard-boiled genre. Cyberpunk, a science-fiction hybrid, hovers close to the surface. There is also a strong strand from noir: an anti-hero who is fighting corruption. And noir, of course, takes its cues from detective fiction and some of its conventions are here. The editor of the book writes, tongue firmly in cheek, that he finally found the futuristic-dystopian-virtual-reality-hit-man-noir novel he'd been wanting. When taken together, the influence of genre fiction on Shovel Ready is clear, but how to classify the book?

It is here, at this exact point, that using a genre to describe a book becomes unhelpful. Jason Mittell, who writes about genre in television, has stated that makes the point that genre is not fixed idea. It is something we form by a loose social and cultural agreement. There are endless ways to combine different elements. How do I usefully review a car with a Chevy engine and bumpers from Japan? I could list the parts, but that wouldn't let you know if you wanted to buy it. The important point is how the parts work together. I'll steer away from genre and give a more helpful report: What does this book feel like to drive?

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Sternbergh's prose is lean and sparse. This is a rough and violent ride. Don't expect soft shocks to cushion your behind.

The author's future New York is not a concept car (too shiny and bubble-like to be on the road). Instead, his city Future New York has lost half its population in a slow and painful decline. A dirty bomb exploded in Times Square, but it was the series of seemingly random car bombs that has unnerved the population the most. There were ebbs and flows; a wave of people moved back at one point, only to leave again. It became "a boom, bust and bang economy." Many of the people who stayed decided to opt out. They are plugged into high-end virtual reality experiences that are like programmed dreams.

As Sternbergh slowly gives out details of this world, they feel increasingly plausible and disconcertingly familiar. The spots of rust already exist in the structures of our present world and, if neglected, will grow.

With a script-like emphasis on dialogue and action, Spademan is only as honest with us as he is with himself. He reveals his inner life and motivations slowly, reluctantly and when forced. We learn his code of honour from his actions, rather than what he says. He reveals his intellect to a knowing reader using wordplay delivered with a wink. Parts of the text feel highly stylized. In some places tension comes from nothing more than a list of actions, a surprisingly effective way of building dread.

In motion, Shovel Ready is exciting. It starts fast and the author keeps his foot on the gas. The thrills feel earned. Sternbergh, the culture editor of the New York Times Magazine, has a steady hand and knows his way around a structure. The tight opening shows the workings of the story and the finale wraps up the ends, but leaves just enough dangling for a sequel. A reader will trust the mechanic. As you round a curve, there is no doubt that the wheels will hug the road.

The author hails from Toronto and now lives in New York, where he is working on a second Spademan novel. I suspect that as this series continues, his style might become tighter. Rather than focusing on the parts, these books may become a model of their own.

As the evangelist who has hired Spademan says of virtual reality, "with any dream, a lot depends on the dreamer." This maxim may also apply to Sternbergh's book. If you expect that Shovel Ready will conform to your idea of a particular genre, it may not feel right, but those willing to throw the map out the window will enjoy the trip. Regardless, please do fasten your seat belt.

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Claire Cameron's new novel, The Bear, will be published in February.

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