Has anything provided more fodder for American authors and filmmakers than the time-honored tradition of ripping apart New York City and exploring its rotten innards?
It’s a thriving subgenre, especially in the post-9/11 years, as anxieties over terrorism have (fruitfully, for creative types) collided with longstanding worries about crime on the one hand and creeping homogeneity and hyper-gentrification on the other.
Wonderful recent novels like “Super Sad True Love Story” and (to a lesser extent given its many settings) “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” in particular, have forced their characters to maneuver near-future versions of a city collapsing under the weight of its own failings.
But in “Shovel Ready,” an energetic new addition to the group and the debut novel from New York Times Magazine culture editor Adam Sternbergh, the collapse has already occurred. Sternbergh’s noir thriller strikes out at many targets and mostly connects, even if it is occasionally hindered by certain sci-fi elements that are served up merely lukewarm.
Sternbergh’s story takes place in the near future in the aftermath of an explosion of a dirty bomb in Times Square and other, smaller-scale attacks and disasters. Most flee the city, save the very rich and the very poor. But Spademan, the book’s protagonist-slash-antihero and a New Jersey native who has always felt more comfortable on the west side of the Hudson, opts to stick around.
A former garbage collector whose life was wrecked by the city’s recent misfortune, he has a new job: hitman. People call him, tell him who to kill, and he does it.
“No motives, no details, no back story,” he says early on. “I don’t know and I don’t want to know.” And this isn’t just a way to make a living. It’s hinted to us early on that darker impulses are also at work: “Truth is,” Spademan explains, “I never spend the money.”
As often happens with such characters, Spademan’s dark cynicism fades when confronted with a painfully distasteful chore — in this case, orders to kill the runaway daughter of a superstar preacher. When he finally catches up to her, she turns out to be pregnant and, according to her, carrying her father’s child. Spademan shifts gears and embarks on a deadly mission to go after the girl’s wealthy and powerful dad.
This launches Spademan into contact with a series of psychopaths and forces him to enter the world of New York’s mega-rich — who, unlike the desperate rabble, can escape the city without physically doing so. Instead they repair to heavily guarded penthouses for lengthy sojourns in the cleaner, less corrupt limnosphere, an expensive virtual-reality, mega-Internet (think, sigh, “The Matrix”).
It’s clear Sternbergh, who in real life lives in an increasingly gentrified New York, is concerned with the idea of being in the city but not of it. In our world, rich denizens of SoHo and the Upper East and West Sides live very close to poverty and chaos but, because of their wealth, are never made to scrape against the city’s sharper edges.
In the world of “Shovel Ready” some of the rich find themselves ultimately less insulated from the problems of the dystopian city than they would like to believe. They are some of Spademan’s easiest victims.
In the novel’s mix of genres the noir proves more successful than the sci-fi. For starters, because of the cultural supersaturation of “The Matrix,” making any kind of virtual cyber-reality feel compelling would be an uphill battle (and yes, I know that plenty of sci-fi authors dealt with this theme before the Wachowskis squeezed hundreds of millions of dollars out of it).
Still Sternbergh partially succeeds. Some aspects of his limnosphere — particularly the manner in which the book’s villain hopes to capitalize off it and some of his more devious plans for doing so — are interesting and memorable. But the face-offs in this virtual world feel a bit tired, the wondrous, anything-is-possible setting somehow less interesting than the living ruins of New York.
The book is nonetheless an enjoyable read, mostly because of Spademan’s strong — if occasionally heavyhanded — narration. This killer spouts staccato sentences and paragraphs — which often feel like the fragmented semi-connected observations of a postmodern Sam Spade. And coming from a character who has been torn asunder by catastrophe — and who is living across the river from a city that has suffered the same fate — it’s a perfect fit.