Monday, February 16, 2015

Book Review: American Neolithic

American Neolithic
by Terence Hawkins
200 pages
C&R Press, 2014

I love a literary mashup, whether it’s Ben Winters’ end-of-days murder mysteries or Kirsten Bakis’ feverish mix of Frankenstein science and pop culture. So when I received a review copy* of Terence Hawkins’ new sci-fi legal thriller, American Neolithic, I tore into it with relish.
        Hawkins, a longtime attorney, puts a fresh spin on a classic genre, the hardboiled crime novel, by framing it in an alternate reality: In a United States governed by a fanatic religious regime, a small community of Neanderthals lives hidden in the shadowy margins of New York City. Aside from the Neanderthals—who, in our reality, died out 30,000 years ago—the idea isn’t that far-fetched. In Hawkins’ dystopian America, Homeland Security oversees law enforcement with brutal efficiency, government propaganda constantly stirs public panic and xenophobia, and—most germane to this story—the religious political machine has officially “debunked” evolution, dismantled scientific facilities, and made it illegal to espouse any theory but creationism. This sets up a complication larger than a few genetic misfits trying to quietly survive in the back alleys of humanity. In this world, living Neanderthals present a scientific conundrum that doesn’t fit the theological story the government is trying to tell, and this government has ways of erasing what it doesn’t like.
        Woven into this backdrop is a quirky crime story about a soft-spoken Neanderthal who becomes a sort of mascot to a hip-hop group, then gets entangled in a murder. There are legal machinations, A Guantanamo-style detention center, court dates and behind-the-scene wrangling among lawyers and judges, with rapid-fire dialog and just enough details for authenticity. The book’s pacing is brisk, and the cynical narration of the main protagonist, a hard-bitten defense attorney, alternates with chapters narrated by the more poetic Neanderthal, who traces the secret history of his people with a wry tenderness. The contrasting voices keep the tone lively, but each has its pitfalls—the lawyer is so disillusioned that his salty narration sometimes overpowers the story, and the Neanderthal’s passages turn syrupy at times.
        The lawyer’s bleak world view presents another thorny issue: In his eyes, the few women in the story are described mostly in terms of their bodies, and the African-American characters all seem to be drug-addled music moguls or bouncers. This character flaw in the main narrator could have made for some welcome nuance if it had been further developed; as it stands, the reader is left wondering what to make of these misogynistic and bigoted remarks tossed off without apology. But, that said, Terence Hawkins can write—he keeps a headlong high-wire act going all through the book, with pacing that never flags and a nightmarish world that’s frighteningly believable. And his inside knowledge of the legal system brings the lawyers’ behind-the-scenes wrangling and one-upmanship vividly to life. I look forward to seeing more books from Hawkins.

* The hardcopy of the book got lost in the mail so I ended up reading it on Kindle, which is fine—I like Kindle books. And then—funny story—a day or two after I wrote this review, the hardcopy arrived, the packaging mangled but the book unharmed. I only mention this because I then got to compare the physical copy with the Kindle one, and they are very different animals. The hardcopy is beautifully designed, printed on good-quality paper and elegantly formatted for effortless reading. But the Kindle version has a lot of formatting errors: no white space signaling section changes within a chapter, ambiguous chapter heads that make it hard to tell where one chapter ends and another begins, and lengthy newspaper excerpts in shoutycaps. To make matters worse, when I tried it on an iPad (via the Kindle app), the whole book was in boldface. (Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature for this book has the same problem.) I’m going to take the book’s publisher to task a little bit here because bad e-book formatting is so prevalent and has become such a pet peeve. I’ve converted books to e-book and Kindle, and I can tell you that the only difference between a sloppy one and a tidy one is a few hours of (admittedly tedious) work. The real time-sucker is testing it out on all the different devices (part of the proofing process when you enroll your book in the Kindle program) because each device uses a different fonts, spacing, chapter head styles, etc. It takes a lot of trial and error to figure out a format that looks good (or at least not bad) on all of them. There are lots of good resources online to learn how to do this, and you don’t need any special skills; it’s just work. I wish more publishers would put in the time to do it. Of course in a few years this technology will have changed again, and this will be one those quaint little topics that nobody talks about anymore.