Book Review : John Dixon - Devil's Pocket (2015)
"We can never be angels," Davis said, "but that don't meant we got to be demons."
I have completely lost touch with the angry, lonely and melodramatic teenager I once was, yet I suspect he would be into John Dixon books like other kids his age are into meth or masturbation. Hell, I've read his debut novel Phoenix Island when I was 32 years old and got a sincere kick out of it. The ultra successful release circumstances of Phoenix Island hinted at a sequel, but what would've been the point? Carl Freeman was basically turned into a superhuman killing machine at the end of the book, so what possible monsters left to fight would've had enough credibility to last 300 pages? Phoenix Island's sequel Devil's Pocket doesn't really provide an answer to this question. It's a novel with both really great and really bad moments that probably confused the shit out of its teenage readers.
Hear me out.
Carl Freeman is a functional, technologically augmented superhuman in the opening of Devil's Pocket. He is being groomed by Commander Stark to become his successor and the next great leader of the Phoenix Force army. But Carl doesn't want anything to do with Stark's plan to create a new Spartan-like State of microchipped badasses because...because...it's unclear what Carl's philosophy about what the world should be are, really. He's a teenager after all. He's not supposed to have one. At least not one that makes sense. ANYWAY, Carl's vague plans to overthrow Commander Stark and liberate the Phoenix Force soldiers are put on hold when Stark decides to send him and two other elite fighters to the Funeral Games, a secret mixed martial arts tournament and his orders are simple: win or die in the cage. Because Stark wouldn't hand his life's work out to a loser, now. Wouldn't he?
Devil's Pocket is, first and foremost, a martial arts novel. It is structured around lengthy and tense fight scenes. They are the most enjoyable thing about the novel, by far. I've been in there myself in another life * and found myself living vicariously through the most subtle moments: Carl's attempts to calm down before the opening bell, Agbeko's attempts to motivate Carl and transfer mindless aggression unto him by repeating "you're a tiger" over and over again, Tex Dubois' joyful recklessness, etc. John Dixon has an Hemingwayesque talent to reveal character through actions and moments. I ended up quite fond of the Phoenix Force boys because they bonded with their backs against the wall. They showed courage and unity in front of a do-or-die situation. Carl Freeman, Agbeko and Tex Dubois have a thing or two to teach whichever teenage boy who decides to pick up Devil's Pocket.
Because there unfortunately is a "but"...
Carl's unhealthy (and mysterious) obsession with leaving Phoenix Force for whatever happily ever after he cannot quite conceive kind of gets in the way here. Even if you've read Phoenix Island, it's tough to wrap your head around. Maybe it's a little fucked up that Commander Stark wants to reinstate a Spartan-like order to society, but it makes complete sense within the economy of the story. Maybe it killed some background characters , but it sure turned Carl, Agbeko and Tex into sharp, healthy and strapping young men. Is it established in Phoenix Island that Carl had a shit life before being recruited, so why would he want to leave a place that gave him everything? There's a vague notion that it's "the right thing to do" hovering over Devil's Pocket, but homeboy is facing the greatest test of his life along with his friends and he wants to flex with his woman? C'mon now. This is SO not in Carl's character to do that. The outside world is only a vague notion in both Phoenix Island and Devil's Pocket. Why wouldn't Carl want to subvert and RUN Phoenix Force instead of escaping it? Doesn't make any sense.
Maybe I'm being harsh, but I don't think John Dixon needs my seal of approval here. Devil's Pocket won the Stoker Awards for best Young Adult novel so what the fuck do I know? I'm the middle-aged guy reading a novel meant for teenagers and I've already admitted my teenage self would've probably enjoyed it. Hell, I've very much enjoyed some parts of Devil's Pocket and I would really like to see what John Dixon could do with an adult novel that isn't bound by some bullshit square-peg-in-round-hole morality. That's what I get for reading young adult novels, really. This is my fault. I'm looking for philosophical and narrative coherence out of books that are meant to have a didactic purpose targeted to younger audiences. I just think the didactic purpose here got in the way of an otherwise great novel that had a message of its own to carry. Devil's Pocket was still an interesting read in a conflicting way. It was just really frustrating at times.
* Full disclosure: not to any spectacular success. I got punched in the face a lot.