Book Review: Money Run
by Jack Heath
Scholastic Press, 2013
It would almost be fair to refer to Australian Young Adult novelist Jack Heath as a meta-author: he looks, sounds, and acts exactly like the heroes of his wildly popular novels, hair-gelled and well-spoken secret agents who strut and posture so adorably that they’ve brought the term ‘lovable rogue’ to the quivering lips of more than one middle school librarian. If one of those young heroes ever decided to adopt the pseudonym of ‘Jack Heath’ and write a Young Adult novel, the resulting singularity might very well consume the entire Alpha Quadrant.
And as young as he is now – a venerable 26 – he was ever so much younger when he first took it into his tousled head to write an action-adventure novel: 13, and 17 when he finally got it done, the slacker. That book eventually became The Lab, Heath’s genuinely enjoyable debut. The book stars Agent Six of Hearts, a genetically engineered teenage super-agent whose main super power turned out to be getting mulishly recalcitrant teenage boys to read: The Lab and its sequels are sure-fire Kryptonite bullets to the intellectual indifference of the skateboarding set. Hence the adoration of all those middle school librarians (not to mention flocks of parents everywhere).
The saving grace of Heath’s books is that this isn’t all they do; even if you already like to read, you’re still going to find these books entertaining, inventive, no-nonsense action thrillers. And this very much applies to his latest U.S. release, 2008’s Money Run, which stars non-enhanced characters in a tightly-controlled plot of virtuoso compression. Thrill-seeking teen thief Ashley “Ash” Arthur (the text seems to offer no explanation for this nod to the great tennis player – it’s depressingly possible that it’s accidental) is an expert thief whose targeted the world’s richest man, Hammond Buckland, for her next job. Buckland, we’re told, struck paydirt when he discovered a use for the congealed protein that forms at the bottom of beer vats during fermentation: he reasoned that it would either be good for rats or bad for rats – which meant it would make either excellent food pellets, or an excellent rat poison (“Pet food is a good industry to be in,” we’re told, in a comment some dog owners will find puzzling, “because the customer isn’t the consumer, so the taste doesn’t matter”).
Buckland’s sky-scraper headquarters – where Ash’s computer-nerd friend Benjamin has determined he keeps their $200 million goal – is an almost impregnable security fortress, but Ash is undaunted. Confidence is her strength, we’re told (it’s an open question how comfortable teenage boys will be with such a paragon, although teenage girls will be in full-Katniss appreciation mode).
The problem with her plan? She puts it into practice on the same day that infamous international paid assassin Michael Peachey has entered the same building with a contract to kill Buckland, who knows he’s coming and has set up an elaborate series of traps to spring on his would-be killer (this is a book that unloads lines like “You probably didn’t notice the room is slowly filling with a colorless, odorless gas” with a completely serene sincerity). In a narrowing spiral of perfectly-orchestrated scenes, both Peachey and Ash face one Buckland-built obstacle after another – until the book’s half-way point, when they meet (she knocks him unconscious) and start becoming each other’s obstacles as well.
It is, in other words, an enviable plot. And Heath doesn’t rest on it; he mixes in the most immediately dramatic writing he can muster:
Sploonk. The sound he made as he plunged into the oil vat was like a foot into a bowl of jelly. The cold, greasy substance flooded into his nose, his eyes, and his open, wheezing mouth. It writhed up his arms and legs, pushing under his shirt cuffs and down his collar. He coughed into the oil, and more flooded into his lungs to fill the vacuum. He thrashed around, trying to rise, trying to figure out which wall was the floor so he could jump out of the vat. His head broke the surface of the oil, and he tried to stand.
Sploonk indeed. Every scene is likewise sensory-colorful and stripped of frills, and as the plot corkscrews to its fairly foreseeable conclusion, the reader can’t help but get pulled in.
The deeper question, the one those middle school librarians scrupulously don’t ask, is whether or not it’s a long-term good thing to be luring teenage boys into reading this kind of book – whether or not it might behoove a writing sensation to challenge such reluctant readers rather than present them, in book after book, with the prose equivalent of a single-player video game.
After all, the previous Australian breakout-star teen-dream YA author, Markus Zusak, steadily complicated his craft beyond the get-boys-to-read action-oriented novellas that launched his career (culminating in the The Book Thief, which sold so many copies to adults that it stopped its young author from writing anything else at all). Heath has written six novels now, each as slick and effective as a neoprene-clad double agent in a kung fu free-for-all. But he himself, alas, is growing older. Might it be time to leave the adolescent hand-holding to the next upstart and begin writing for his own weight class?
Readers will keep having fun either way, which is nice.