February 06, 2014

James W Hall - the brightness of Going Dark

James Hall is a poet and professor of literature, and this literary background informs all of his books. Hit List was an entertaining examination of what exactly best-sellers did to become best-sellers, and Hall's knowledge of structure, character and dialogue are, as usual, well to the foreground in his tenth Thorn book, Going Dark.

Thorn is Hall's enigmatic hero, a man who, like Hiaasen's Quint, lives off the radar and close to nature. He ties fishing lures for a tenuous living but continually finds himself drawn into the criminal underworld by the shady happenings that take place around him.

In Going Dark, the misadventures of his recently-discovered son draw him into a plot to incapacitate a nuclear reactor on the edge of the Florida Everglades. As ever, Thorn lives up to his name - he's a thorn in the side of the bad guys, unwilling to become involved but unable to keep out of things when friends or relatives are in trouble. This naturally gets him in trouble.

Interestingly, Hall seems to have loosened up his style. In previous books he kept a close third-person viewpoint on Thorn so that we saw events unfold, largely, from his perspective. This time Hall permits himself a touch of authorial intrusion, helping us to see the situation and the set-up a little more quickly:
Impulsive, hair-trigger Thorn and steady, no-nonsense Sugar. Thorn, the hard-core loner, and Sugar with a hundred friends and a sunny view of the darkest days. For years the two had undertaken risky balancing acts along precipices and canyon edges, lurching along the edges of one bottomless disaster after another, but somehow they’d always managed to steady each other and dance away just before the plunge. So far.
This is Hall giving us a quick overview of the relationship between these two characters but also setting us up for the adventure to come. That 'So far' suggests that there are going to be tough times ahead for the pair of them ... which turns out to be true.

In this book more than others, perhaps, Hall relies on outsize characters to carry the load. The two main bad guys are Cameron Prince, a body-building eco-fanatic, who turns out differently than what we might expect; and Claude Sellers, head of security at the nuclear plant. These two characters are established early on as prospective antagonists to Thorn and his FBI acquaintance, Frank Sheffield. Part of the lure of the book is waiting to see these two pairs of fighters get it on, and Hall doesn't let the opportunity go. He builds the tension in a series of conflict-laden conversations such as this early one between Prince and Thorn:
“I asked you about the tower,” the big man said.
“That’s why you’re here, to look at my cistern?”
“I’ve been studying them because one day I’d like to build one myself. How tall is yours?”
“Seventy feet,” said Thorn. “Six inches.”
“Three-thousand-gallon tank?”
“Around there.”
“So that gives you a smidge over thirty pounds per square inch of pressure in the house. Minimal, not much more than a trickle.”
“I never measured it, but a trickle sounds right.”
“Hard to take a shower in a trickle.”
“I manage.”
“Can’t run your dishwasher.”
“Don’t have one.”
“Barely enough to flush your toilets.”
Thorn took another dip into the shallow pools of the man’s eyes. “You don’t look like a building code inspector.”
“And what do I look like to you?”
Thorn couldn’t find a word that captured the full measure of his distaste. “Exactly what kind of bullshit are you selling?”
The sentences are measured but full of menace, Prince's questions direct and intrusive. The antagonism between the two men is largely unstated until Thorn's last statement, but palpable nonetheless.

Hall constructs the novel on a series of antagonisms like this, between Thorn and Prince, Thorn and Pauly, between Sheffield and Sellers, Sheffield and a female colleague, Nicole McIvey. Apart from Thorn and Sheffield, we're never sure who is reliable and who is not. Pauly is an ex Navy Seal, but is now acting as a bad guy. Is he really a bad guy, or just undercover? Likewise McIvey, is she good cop or bad cop? These uncertainties and the shifting relationships they create trouble our protagonists and keep us guessing so that we want to read to the end in order to find out what exactly is what.

And the conclusion doesn't let us down. As we read the book we're thinking, Is he really going to show us the explosion of a nuclear reactor? And as we get closer to the end Hall's grasp of the technology, of the workings of the reactor, of the workings of the FBI and security systems is so sure that we never question the veracity of what he tells us. The research seems solid, the details seem right, and as a result the conclusion reeks with verisimilitude.

Of course Thorn must live to fight another day, no spoiler there, but the fate of all the other characters is in doubt almost to the end. So the tension is maintained, and as soon as we finish the book we're thinking, When's the next one due?

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