Book Review : Tom Pitts - American Static (2017)
For the majority of you reading this blog, a "good" novel is something that surprises you and subverts your expectations. Serious readers enjoy the craft above anything. It's not why most people read, though. The great majority of reader is looking for something in particular, whether it's information, a feeling or a certain type of story. And it takes a lot of skill to deliver over and over again despite your audience's growing expectation. One of my favorite "specialists" working today is California-based Tom Pitts, who writes street novels filled with lowlives and survivors. And he has a new novel officially coming out next week titled American Static. I've read it and let me tell you, Pitts did it again. It is his best work yet.
American Static doesn't really have a protagonist. It follows a group of loosely related people involved in a situation that is gradually unveiling itself. The first character introduced is Steven, a good-looking, streetwise but witless who gets jumped and robbed at the bus stop by strangers. He is rescued by Quinn, an uncomfortably forward stranger who seem to have further use for Steven. He claims to want Steven to help him reconnect with his estranged daughter who now lives in San Francisco, but he doesn't feel truthful at all to Steven who's just looking for a ride to the city. It's the most I can say without spoiling the fun but this is just the premise to something WAY crazier.
So, American Static is conventionally enjoyable. It's a classic pulp revenge novel and it proudly delivers just that. It's a novel that shines through its smart and intricate execution rather than its originality. What makes it work so well is that Tom Pitts keeps redefining the stakes of his own novel every sixty pages or so, something that elite storytellers like Lawrence Block and Joe Lansdale do. The what is clear, but the why keeps getting broader and crazier as you uncover information about litany of characters who barge into American Static like drunken extras from a slapstick stage play. This is how plot-driven novels should always be written. With great energy and an open mind. Tom Pitts first got known for Hustle, a raw and challenging novel about addiction. He's still not a stylist two books later, but he's becoming quite the storyteller. It's rewarding to see an author improve the way Pitts did.
There were things I liked a little less about American Static. The de facto protagonist Steven was forgettable. He's the one character featured in the first and the last page of the novel and while he makes courageous choices here and there, I cant quite command a teenage for listening to his dick and taking off with the first cute girl. He's a little TOO normal in that sense. The proliferation of characters is also difficult to keep up with at times. I don't think there are any unnecessary characters in American Static, everybody serves a clear purpose, but some of them blur into one another. Take Carl for example. What was Carl's deal exactly? I know what he did in the story, I'm just not sure of who he was in the bigger picture. None of that made it painful to read American Static or anything, it was still a blast. Could it have been tighter, though? You bet your ass it could've.
So, what's next for Tom Pitts? The man is like a middleweight contender knocking out challengers left and right. He needs a greater task. The term is being thrown around left and right in book blurbs, but Pitts is actually a legit heir to Elmore Leonard. He writes with the same humor and reckless energy than the immortal pulpster. American Static is straightforwardly compelling. It's not perfect by any means, but it feels alive in a way most crime novels don't and it mirrors countless possibilities for Tom Pitts, who enlarged his narrative range with this novel. If you're into revenge stories, this one doesn't feel used or gimmicky. I used to think Tom Pitts was a fine writer with a limited range, but I'm not so sure anymore. Can't wait to see what he comes up with next.