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What Passes for Hope

By (January 1, 2014) No Comment

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Adam Sternbergh
Crown, 2014

What are we doing here, in this golden age of anti-heroes? How did we go from occasionally rooting for (or sympathizing with) the bad guy in literature and cinema, to routinely doing so? Dracula and Frankenstein seem like house-pets compared to author Jeff Lindsay’s monstrous Dexter (who kills other serial killers), and George R. R. Martin’s depraved royals Jaime and Tyrion Lannister.

Heedless of the dripping blood, we’ve hoisted these moral-cripples high. Again, what’s the appeal? Is it simply that these anti-heroes get ahead using the blackmail and violence we can only dream about? Their behavior also appears to be so much visceral fun (The Shield’s Vic Mackey), not to mention lucrative (Breaking Bad’s Walter White). Plunging hilt-deep into both the phenomenon’s heart and ours, I’ll say it’s a psychic purge we Americans crave. We relish seeing villains weave snake-like through law, order, and anything else a sane person might hold dear, only to meet doom in the end. How better to cope, in this cacophonous age of celebrity hate-speech, illegal warfare, and white-collar criminals who live as they please?

The way Godzilla and his towering ilk trampled Japan for decades after World War II, American anti-heroes roam our cultural suburbs, getting away with just about anything that our overreaching politicians do. But at least Vic and Dexter are riveting in their exploits. The latest to join their dark brigade is Spademan, the snarky, brutal narrator of New York Times Magazine editor Adam Sternbergh’s debut novel Shovel Ready.

Spademan lives in a speculative New York that would make most citizens of the world shudder—one that’s been half-emptied and irradiated by dirty bombs. The once (in)famous Wall Street does no business, Central Park hosts a filthy, dangerous tent community, and the former industrial neighborhood of Tribeca is where most rich people have fled. They live barricaded in warehouse apartments and wired into a fully virtual reality called the limnosphere—more on that soon.

For now, just know that Spademan is the son of a garbage man. He himself used to be one too, back when that was an actual job in a civilized world capital. Today, he’s settled for taking out human trash as a killer-for-hire. Here’s his philosophy:

I don’t want to know your reasons, if he owes you or he beat you or she swindled you or he got the promotion you wanted or you want to fuck his wife or she fucked your man or you bumped into each other on the subway and he didn’t say sorry. I don’t care. I’m not your Father Confessor.
Think of me more like a bullet.
Just point.

Spademan’s weapon of choice is actually a box cutter—but that knowledge might turn some clients away. Primarily, he offs his targets while they’re strapped to space-age beds (for weeks or months at a stretch), taking food intravenously, and tripping their deepest bliss in the limnosphere. This creation is Sternbergh’s murderous critique on all things digital that we “can’t live without,” from video games to social networking.

In this heavenly post-Internet, those who can afford to live in texture and sensation rich environments, essentially abandoning their physical bodies to nurses. Digital avatars, taking World of Warcraft and Facebook personas to their logical conclusions, adopt whatever shapes users might imagine. Spademan explains the limnosphere with jocular aplomb:

The way it happened was, it started as business software. Some kind of fancy teleconferencing gimmick. Clunky helmets, silly goggles, but once you plug in, it was pretty amazing. 3D around a table. Avatars that look surprisingly like you. Pick a tie, any color. Your choice. Dreams really do come true.
That was maybe ten years back.
And if we’ve learned anything in this once-proud world, it’s that once someone figures out how to do something as miraculous as that, it’s only a matter of time before someone else soups it up so you can use it to suck a horse’s cock. In pretend land.
Or run a brothel. Or be a holy Roman emperor.
In pretend land.
Soon people were running around, half-centaur, or space-alien furry, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or what have you. Fucking Chewbacca.
Literally fucking Chewbacca.

Spademan, you can see, isn’t terribly impressed with the limnosphere, its users, or the Big Rotten Apple. His sparkling cynicism runs like bubbly from a one-percenter’s fountain, seeping into the narrative’s every pore. But the difference between Sternbergh’s character and one of Chuck Palahniuk’s smarmy Gen Xers, is that Spademan has a mission beyond affecting sour ennui. And, as a dedicated, experienced garbage man, he’s ready to salvage that always-tricky first impression:

People get upset when you say you kill people.
Fair enough.
But wait.
What if I told you I only kill serial killers?
It’s not true, but what if I told you that?
Now what if I told you I only kill child molesters? Or rapists? Or people who really deserve it?
Wavering yet?
Okay, now what if I told you I only kill people who talk loudly in movie theaters? Or block the escalator? Or cut you off in traffic?
Don’t answer. Think it over.
Not so self-righteous now.
I’m just kidding. There’s no such thing as movie theaters anymore.


Sternbergh mirrors Cormac McCarthy’s freedom from quotation marks—and switchblade-fast dialogue—without quite bowing to his elder’s bleak (and recently adopted) minimalism. In fact, Shovel Ready hoots and howls with life, like the woods at night, boasting lyrical prose on every page. “Brownstone, limestone, some kind of moneystone,” says Spademan, describing a building. “Real stained glass,” he continues, “the kind for people with eyes.”

Naturally, once we’ve been drilled on how cheap life is in Spademan’s New York (except dogs—they’re priceless delicacies), we join him not for a typical mission, but for the one that sets his flimsy rulebook aflame. His latest target is an eighteen-year-old named Grace Chastity Harrow. Since running away, though, she’s gone by Persephone.

Frothing just a bit, the client who’s contacted Spademan also calls her a “dirty slut junkie.” This unsolicited anger gets him wondering if the hit isn’t what it seems. The name Harrow is familiar too, and when pressed, his client admits that Persephone is the daughter of T.K. Harrow, America’s most famous evangelist.

Spademan begins his search in the free-lovin’ pit that is Central Park, where “drum circles and dreadlocks” reign. There, he learns that his quarry wears a pink backpack and is willing to carve up whoever messes with her; there’s also been a Southern gent in shades—a Mr. Pilot—asking about her.

Spademan continues to peck the trail of green glowing breadcrumbs, eventually finding the home of Persephone’s financier uncle, Lyman Harrow. He’s wealthy enough to lie around using the limnosphere regularly, and has the eccentric’s disheveled wardrobe to prove it. With little pressure, Lyman tells our dumpster jockey that he allowed his niece to stay one night, then called two guys with a van to come for her—and presumably force her into prostitution.

When actor Michael C. Hall—playing television’s Dexter—hears something this vile, he deploys a trademarked glaze of ecstasy that foreshadows the bloodletting. On the way out of Lyman’s, Spademan chats up the butler, reminding him that he only wants to kill the young lady, nothing “extracurricular.” This earns him yet another crumb—the fact that one of the van drivers had a fishhook/ampersand tattoo on his hand. In thanks, Spademan pretends to forget his Zippo lighter upstairs. The butler reluctantly lets him back in, where Lyman’s already in bed, plugged once more into the limnosphere. Then, box cutter in hand, he opens the rich man’s throat like a long-delayed parcel finally received.

While traveling through Red Hook to a bar called the Bait & Switch, our narrator deftly sketches some rank urban desolation, where “oily water waits in puddles, camped out by the overstuffed sewers.” It’s also the first mention of Stella, his deceased wife. In Red Hook, Spademan finds Persephone’s dexter-morgan-youredmcaptors—thoroughly eviscerated in their van, at the center of a crowded crime scene. A drink in the Bait & Switch wins him the knowledge (from a cabby) that a girl covered in blood wanted to see the angel of Bethesda…

…which is a statue all the way back in Central Park. By now, Sternbergh has taken readers on a humorous tour of blackly glittering humanity, reminiscent of cult films like Repo Man and Donnie Darko. But for Spademan’s adventure to remain interesting, he’s going to need to show more heart. His story needs to break into pieces that are sharper, more jagged, but also better fitting. And when he finds Persephone sitting under the statue—pregnant—that is exactly what happens.

Several months pregnant, actually, showing a bump. Filthy and starving, too. Spademan says he’s from a youth group and offers her shelter. Once they’re within striking distance of his Hoboken apartment, Persephone knows he’s lying, figuring that her father must have sent him, as well as the Southern gent. Later in a local bar, Spademan learns about Harrow’s Crystal Corral ministry, his top-rated television show, and his Paved With Gold program.

It would be hard for Paved With Gold to be anything but the sinister convergence of faith and technology that it is, especially in a novel by an author running down the Cynic’s Checklist. The program is Harrow’s way of using the limnosphere to literally offer Heaven to his flock. It’s also a front for the morally corrupt to flex their worst fantasies on unwilling victims. Does this put Harrow somewhere further down on the anti-hero continuum? At the furthest opposite end from Spademan, perhaps, since he merely gets by on his carefully chosen kills.

Then Mr. Pilot and his revolver show up at the bar. Spademan survives the shootout, only to set Persephone and himself out running. In the story’s second half, they’re aided and abetted by gay youth pastor Mark, and a sleazy operator named Rick who can hack the limnosphere. Sternbergh’s true surprises are not in learning who impregnated Persephone, nor in body-morphing battles within the limnosphere itself (during which Mark transforms into a perfectly handsome angel, Uriel).

It is Spademan’s gut-punching reaction to New York’s destruction that rattles through Sternbergh’s noir trappings:

It wasn’t that we didn’t care about the bombings. We just didn’t care about the city. Not really. Not that part. Not those streets. Most native New Yorkers, to be honest, had abandoned Times Square long ago. Thought of it mostly as a tourist preserve. Cursed the bright neon signs, the Naked Cowboy, and whatever errands might bring you there on a crowed Saturday to fight through the sluggish global herd.

It wasn’t long before native New Yorkers were all making the same grim jokes. Times Square? Roach bomb. Ha-ha-ha. Or, Times Square? I’ve heard it really glows at night. Or, Times Square? They finally figured out a way to get tourists to step aside on the sidewalk.

Most people—many of whom would never elect to read a book like this—will see these passages as a bottom-feeder’s mentality, unsympathetic to our shared global experience. Few will believe that, as a New Yorker, Sternbergh has earned the right to express such thoughts. Just before speaking with Harrow about a visit to Paved With Gold, Spademan contemplates Stella’s final moments, and we’re treated to some dark humanist poetry:

In the months after I could only hope she was riding in the first [train] car. I hope she was standing right next to the bomb. I hope she picked up that damned gym bag, unzipped it, poked her head in, right before it detonated.
I hope it blew her to dust.
I hope she didn’t lay wounded, twisted, in the darkness of that tunnel, waiting for sirens, waiting for help, hearing them carefully make their way down, advancing step-by-step through the wreckage, then die in the second explosion.
Everyone who was left died in the second explosion.
I hope she died in the first one. The diversion.
That’s what passes for hope these days.

And that’s the kind of swirling, I’ve-stopped-reading-for-a-deep-breath sadness that Shovel Ready heaps upon on you. It’s not quite expected, from the book’s animated cover or synopsis. But it bleeds out of those who have absorbed the worst that reality can throw, heroically or otherwise.

Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.