Friday, June 7, 2013

Book Review : Lee Child - One Shot (2005)



"I'm Jack Reacher," he said.

She stared at him. "You're kidding. Are you really?"

He nodded. "Always have been, always will be."

"Unbelievable."

"Not really. Everybody's somebody."

Lee Child is a controversial writer. His fiction isn't political or shocking in any way, but its value is constantly debated in the literary community. He is often put in the same bag as James Patterson and Stephenie Meyer as "crap that sells". I only had marginal interest towards Child's novels before Hollywood decided to pick up the Jack Reacher franchise and adapted his novel ONE SHOT *. After toying with the idea of seeing the film in theaters, I decided to read the paperback instead. It was cheaper than a movie ticket and it would help me have a more educated opinion on Lee Child. Reading ONE SHOT was a lot less painful than I thought it would be. But I kind of hate Jack Reacher too, now.

ONE SHOT is the ninth entry in the Jack Reacher franchise, but it doesn't matter. Every novel is an entity in itself. They aren't linked in anyway, except for the presence of Reacher. In this one, a sniper sent a midland city in panic by shooting five seemingly random citizens at 5 PM on a Friday. The evidence quickly leads to James Barr, an ex-army sniper with a mountain of problems. He is arrested, charged and beaten into a coma by Mexican people, in county jail. Before going under, he has one simple, yet mysterious request: "Get me Jack Reacher." Nobody is able to honor that request and find Reacher, but in good Chuck Norris fashion, Reacher finds them **. He has come to fulfill an old promise to James Barr, except that his super-duper investigator skills tell him something telse: Barr is innocent, this time.

There is an annual competition to find real life Jack Reacher lookalikes. Usually it's a younger, bigger lookalike of his potato-faced author that wins. That's no fun. The only thing that kept Jack Reacher fun for me was to imagine him as a hyper pipsqueak with a chip on his shoulder. Jack Reacher is a perfect human being, except he's not. There are plenty of flawless characters in literature. Michael Scofield, from PRISON BREAK, is as flawless as it gets. The difference between them is that Reacher is obsessed with his flawlessness. That makes him childish, rude and utterly annoying. He keeps correcting everybody about petty details ***, bragging about his sexual exploits and ridiculing his enemies' toughness. I stopped finding that type of behavior cool since I blown the twelfth candle on my birthday cake.

"You know when my birthday is?" Reacher asked.

"Obviously not."

"It's in October. You know what day?"

"Of course not."

"You're going to find out the hard way. I'm counting in my head. When I reach my birthday, I'm going to pull the trigger."

It's too bad that Jack Reacher talks like an insecure, prepubescent trust fund kid, because when he keeps his mouth shut, ONE SHOT is quite enjoyable. It's not a literary classic by any means. It's not even a genre classic, but it's a competent thriller. It has a distinct identity. Lee Child patiently crafted the intrigue over the first half of the novel and found ways to implicate his protagonist into every variable, giving his key scenes a strong emotional impact. The second half of the novel is like watching dominos fall as Reacher takes care of business and shows his obvious talent at beating the crap out of everything that lives. That makes his childish quips even more useless, because his efficiency is self-evident from the patiently crafted, smart scenes Child designed to make him look cool.

I don't think Lee Child and James Patterson should be mentioned in the same sentence. Child obviously can write. He is just way too enamored with his character. It's a cardinal sin of writing fiction to love your main character more than your readers. Child loves Reacher with the abusive love of a parent with broken dreams at Sunday morning's soccer game. He wants him to be historically cool. That makes for queasy scenes. For example, Reacher is supposed to be an awesome lover, but whenever he talks to a woman he seems to desire, he comes off a horny. He says too much, he does too much. It's difficult to read sometimes. I know I'm stressing this a lot, but it really is the only major flaw in this novel. It's an important flaw when it makes me want to shove my fingers down my throat whenever a character is talking.

Thank God Jack Reacher doesn't talk much, though. That made cruising through ONE SHOT a rather pleasant experience. When he doesn't talk, I'm ready to accept whatever level of ass kicking Lee Child designed for him, because its written with good pace and tension. There is another odd thing about ONE SHOT. Lee Child seems obsessed with people who say nothing. Characters will say nothing every two or three pages. Sometimes it's several time over one page: "X said nothing," and "Y said nothing." That wasn't exactly unpleasant. It gave somehow a rhythm to the novel, like an epic poem. It was just very peculiar. 

ONE SHOT is a competent thriller, better than what you'll usually find in airports. It has a mind of its own and an layered plot that's genuinely challenging. There is very little emotional engagement, since the main protagonist has NOTHING at stake and I suppose it would bother me more, given that I read other Lee Child novels, but I doubt I will make it a habit. It's worth a read to form an opinion on an author who is dominating the crime fiction charts. ONE SHOT would have been really good if Reacher wasn't the main character, or if he was a mute...or maybe if he died.

3 STARS

* Dubiously renamed...MATT DAAAM- I mean, JACK REACHER.

** Except that, you know. Lee Child doesn't have any sense of humor about that.

*** There is a very minor character once, who says: "You're a hard man to find, Reacher," and Reacher answers: "Correction, I'm an impossible man to find". I mean c'mon! Take the compliment and shut up. Don't butter yourself up some more!

6 comments:

  1. Ha... yeah, Reacher is irritating. He's the "1980's" model of a tough guy, one who feels the need for snappy banter that's not really so snappy, and ridiculous one-liners. Whereas, in real life, the bad guy would've killed you while you were preoccupied saying cool things. My favorite literary tough guys don't waste time talking-- like Richard Stark's Parker.

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  2. He's not even saying cool things like John Rambo or Dutch in Predator. He just brags like a child.

    In the first part of the book, he beats the shit out of five guys. I mean, I can accept that. But the first fucking thing he says after that is: "I used minimal force" . I mean, SHUT UP!

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  3. Haha! Right! You probably know I spent a lot of time thinking about what makes a literary tough guy tough, and, well... running off at the mouth ain't one of the bullet points.

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  4. I'm around badass people all the time. They all have one thing in common. They don't like to speak about how badass they are. They're self-assured. A byproduct of a high self-esteem is humility.

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  5. I inherited a large portion of my Jack Reacher books, reading a handful. He's a palatable character and yes, it's more entertaining when he doesn't speak.

    I hate to do this, but once upon a time Patterson was a writer. The first few Alex Cross books were great, or at least my memory of them is positive. Unfortunately, good writers evolve into better writers, he opted to become a brand. And it kills me to see each and every new book, because it is a reminder that every book he releases in a year is one less spot for a new or genuine voice.

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  6. Ron:

    1) Indeed. Like I said in the review, when Reacher doesn't speak, the character doesn't go further than the usual flawless type, which is a type of character you see now and then.

    2) I heard about that. I remember seeing the Alex Cross book they made into a movie and thinking it was good. He's become a business now.

    I remember once I was at the book store and there was a guy browsing the Pattersons like a madman. I didn't know much about him then, but I saw his name everywhere, so I'm like:

    "How's Patterson? Is he cool?"

    "He's the absolute best, man. Best fucking writer. I only read him. Never read anything else in my life. He has one page chapters. I couldn't read anything with longer chapters, it's so boring."

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