Shovel Ready
Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m a native New Yorker, although I haven’t a lived there since the turn of the century. There’s no doubt that the city has fundamentally changed over the last 30 years. It was once a far dirtier and more dangerous city. New York was a place where you could have a shootout on 42nd street and no one would bat an eyelash—not even the cops.

Although this new New York is safer, not only was the pre-2000 version more genuinely interesting and artistic, it was also a far better place for the kind of hard-boiled neo-noir that Adam Sternbergh is clearly itching to tell.

To that end, he’s created a future version of New York that has found its back from the current curated, “clean” city to the dangerous urban jungle of the 70s and 80s. I won’t tell you how he gets it there, since those revelations about some of the most entertaining (and best written) parts of the book. Suffice it to say, that this return to a grittier world works (mostly). It’s a fun, dangerous, violent reality to rattle around in, and Spademan is a character of (and for) his world.

All that, along with a general love of the kind of broken knights that populate noir fiction, made me want to love this book. Unfortunately, I found the main character “Spademan” tough to like. One of my main issues with him is that he starts out as one noir archetype, and rapidly transforms into another. Unfortunately, we never really get the chance to get to know that dead inside amoral version before his heart of gold begins to shine through. I found the transition jarring.

The other thing that held me back from really loving this book is that the plot is never really as demanding as it should be; the story advances far too often on deus ex machina and dumb luck instead of the characters careful planning, bad breaks, and determined insight.

Sternbergh often seems to chop out key rungs from the story progression just to prove that he can pull it off. If he’d occasionally lean into the tropes instead of making such a spectacle of throwing them away, I think it would have been a better book.

I’ve heard some people complain about the lack of quotation marks in this book, so it’s worth mentioning he doesn’t use them. Before I read the book I was guessing that would create a kind of cinematic hyper-immediacy, but in fact it does the opposite. This is a first person novel, and the lack of quotes make it read as is everyone is speaking with the protagonists voice—the literary equivalent of an audio book. Most of the time it works quite well, but occasionally I found myself having to put my brain into reverse in order to pull my head out from the one way street that the prose had accidentally driven me down.

The irony of this book is that it uses all its technical mastery the same way that modern Manhattan far too often uses its vast infrastructure: to create safe and predictable that has only a vague aura of genuine danger. Theme park noir, if you will.

The rides are all there, and they’re executed with precision, but Sternbergh just doesn’t seem ready to get down and wallow in the dirt and moral ambiguity that make the best noir so deeply thrilling.

All that said, it’s a well-executed book, and if it weren’t for some surprisingly weak “twists” in the plot, along with some far too safe character choices, this would easily be a four star novel. As it is, if you’re curious, it’s worth the read, and I’m looking forward to what other dark worlds Adam Sternbergh will bring us to.

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