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Book Review : Chuck Wendig - Mockingbird (2012)
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Sitting across from her is her first boyfriend, Ben Hodges, the back of his head blown out from the shotgun he ate so long ago. Back when they both were dumb horny teenagers in high school. They fucked. She got pregnant. He killed himself. And his mother took out her lonely mother age on Miriam with a red snow shovel.
That day. The day Miriam was really born. The now-Miriam. The Miriam with this curse, this gift, this thing-that-she does.
If you're trying to write a novel in Shakespeare's language and have access to the internet, you probably know who Chuck Wendig is. He is an extremely popular purveyor of writing advice for two simple reasons: 1) He is actually a successful, traditionally published author and 2) he uses profanity and vulgarity to convey his message. That gives him a tremendous appeal with people who don't want to feel they're being preached to. Wendig talked the talked and ran into tremendous success as an authority on creative writing before having any noticeable publication, but he also walked the walked by releasing ambitious and groundbreaking books such as SHOTGUN GRAVY and MOCKINGBIRD'S predecessor, BLACKBIRDS. The second volume of Miriam Black's adventures is a little more quiet and subtle than the first, but at the finish line, I can't help but applause at Chuck Wendig's mastery of storytelling.
I'll take for granted that you're already familiar with Miriam Black. If you're not, just know she's cursed with the very rare skill of seeing how somebody dies on first skin-to-skin contact. After the events of BLACKBIRDS, she really is trying to settle down with her companion of misfortune Louis Darling, who's alive and well, minus one eye. Her good resolution fall apart the day she touches her ex-employer and witnesses her horrible death three minutes from that time. She has a moment of clarity, seeing how that talent will always dictate what her life will be. Understanding as always, Louis find her a job in her domain, telling a hypochondriac school teacher for troublesome girls when she's going to die. But at the reform school, Miriam touches the wrong person and sees something absolutely terrible. Something she has no choice but attempt to stop.
Writing MOCKINGBIRD must have been a challenge in itself. BLACKBIRDS had an ace up its sleeve to conquer new audiences as it was new. Nothing like that had never been written before. Not like this, not with this level of intensity. MOCKINGBIRD had to pick up where the prodigal son left. It's a difficult task and it's not clear right off the bat if the novel is up to it. Chuck Wendig has this seducing, rhythmic, almost hypnotic prose, but for the first few hundred pages, it's just not enough. You're left wondering where the hell this is going. But let me reassure you. While MOCKINGBIRD is more atmosphere than spectacle, it rewards patience, big time.
"Oh, I'm bum, but what are you?" he's saying as he dogs her escape. "You don't look like you have a pot to piss in. Sure. Okay. I'm just a bum. I get that. I don't have shit. But that's not all my fault. I'm learning disabled. And I got depression issues. Give your damn uncle a break."
She stops in the doorway, turns to face him. Sees now just how haggard he looks: the hollow pits below his cheekbones, his sunken eyes, those teeth the colors of tobacco spit. But she doesn't find pity stirring there. Only anger. Maybe it's for him. Maybe it's for someone else.
"Sorry you're both sad and stupid," she says.
MOCKINGBIRD is an uneven novel. It's not a nail-biter like its predecessor and yet cannot dog its shadow. That's a problem Chuck Wendig seems to have understood very well and he crafted one important variable to his novel that makes it stand out. Plotting. You have to read a good chunk of MOCKINGBIRD to understand where it's going, but when you do, it's extremely rewarding. It struck me as an extremely controlled and mastered novel where Chuck Wendig makes you take as little unnecessary turns as possible. Think of it like this. BLACKBIRDS was a 101 class in genre literature, so MOCKINGBIRD is the 201 class. It's more austere and yet it gazes into the possibilities and the complexity of genre.
I'm also somewhat fascinated by Chuck Wendig's infatuation with poverty/trailer park culture. I've read three of his books and the three are about lonely and dispossessed heroines. Not too sure what's up with that. I suppose there is a state of lucidity to extreme loss. Both Miriam Black and Atlanta Burns have virtually nothing in terms of possessions, but they have a moral wealth that can withstand pressure and adversity. I'd be curious to see where Wendig leads those female protagonists, because he is building something that is entirely himself around these. He's saying something through these girls, I just can't articulate it properly yet. Not enough data.
So yeah, MOCKINGBIRD is the logical and narrative continuation of BLACKBIRDS and yet it is both very similar and very different. It's a more obvious novel. The pace is slower and allows the reader to think more clearly about the mystery at hand. It requires also more effort, but with that effort comes a reward that is quite satisfying. I have a very critical stance about writing advice, but Chuck Wendig made himself a baseline for what works and what's bullshit, with the quality of his fiction. If you can stomach paranormal stories, the Miriam Black trilogy is a mandatory stop. The next volume CORMORANT is due sometime this year. Catch up and enjoy the deep and intricate worlds of Chuck Wendig.
THREE STARS *
* It's as close to FOUR STARS than BLACKBIRDS was of having a FIVE STARS status. Maybe some more foreshadowing details in the first part would have sealed the deal. I can't help but think it could have been a little shorter.