This is one of those books that I’m uber-excited about, yet I don’t think I do a good enough job at explaining why I am. It’s just good.
by Nick Kolakowski
eARC, 274 pg.
Down & Out Books, 2019
Read: October 29-31, 2019
“You know the trick to surviving? The one thing you got to do?”
“What’s that?” Maxine asked.
“You got to treat every day like an adventure. Like it’s fun, or a challenge, even when everything’s crappy. Especially when it’s crappy. Because otherwise, it’s all going to crush you.”
“I feel like I spent my whole life being crushed.”
“Well, that’s your fault. A normal job, trying to live a normal life, it’s just inviting people to stomp you. And they do.”
“But at least in my line of work, sometimes you get to stomp back…”
In case the author’s name looks familiar to you, yeah, you’ve seen me use it a few times this year—3 novellas, 1 short fiction collection, and now this novel, Maxine Unleashes Doomsday. It occurs to me now, that he was the first author I read this year, and he did a pretty good job setting the tone for 2019’s reading. This book is his first step out of Crime Fiction and into Science Fiction—dystopian SF, to be precise (that really should be obvious to anyone familiar with him, I don’t think he’s got a utopian novel in him).
That said, there’s enough of a Crime Fiction flavor to this SF novel, that fans of either genre will have enough of their drug of choice to be satisfied.
This is set in the near-future, at various points along the fall of the US/Western Civilization. While there are plenty of other characters to keep an eye on, our focus throughout is on Maxine. After a rocky start to life with a drug-addicted mother, and an unsuccessful academic career (although she tried for a little bit), she tries to follow her uncle’s example and become a criminal. She has some success in that, but a large failure resulted in life-threatening injuries to a friend and the loss of one of her arms. Following that, she tries to live a non-criminal life, she gets a job, settles down with a guy and has a kid. But her heart’s not in it, and she ends up dabbling in thievery. At some point, she abandons that life and sets her eyes on a criminal career.
Maxine is one of my favorite characters this year—she’s flawed (not as flawed as she thinks), she’s a fighter (not as good as she thinks), self-destructive, optimistic, and driven. She takes a lot of (metaphorical and literal) punches, and while she may not get up right away after them, she doesn’t stop moving forward. Ever. I love reading characters like that.
Her uncle, who goes by Preacher, is one of the most significant criminals in the New York area—and has some cops dedicated to taking him down, and any number of civilians supporting him. Off and on throughout her childhood, Preacher tried to get Maxine’s mother to leave her addictions behind to provide for and care for her kids. Between his power and influence on the one hand, and being just about the only adult to look out for her and her brother, it’s no wonder that Maxine will want to be part of his life. Readers of Kolakowski’s Main Bad Guy will enjoy playing a compare/contrast game with Preacher and Walker.
There are a number of other characters that greatly influence Maxine’s life and desires, but none so much as her uncle. And to get into them would just push this post beyond the length I want (and would end up spoiling stuff to really talk about).
By and large, this is the story of Maxine’s journey from a struggling public school student to being a wanted criminal (and beyond). But that’s not everything that’s going on. For the first chapter, you get the impression you’ll be reading a book about rival groups fighting for supplies in mid-apocalyptic New York. But then you’ll realize that’s not it at all, it’s a story about how Maxine became the tenacious gun-fighter and would-be criminal mastermind that she is. Eventually you discover that yeah, both of those are true, but Kolakowski’s really writing a different story—and boy howdy, you feel pretty clever when you suss it out, and it’s such a brilliant way of telling this story that you don’t mind being wrong about what the book is trying to accomplish. But even then, you won’t really understand everything until the last line of the book (I’m not sure I actually pumped my fist when I read it, but I probably thought about it pretty hard).
Yes, it’s a pretty violent book (this too, should really be obvious to anyone familiar with Kolakowsi), but most of the truly horrible stuff happens “off-screen,” making it a lot easier to take. The prose moves quickly and assuredly, the writing is sone with a strong sense of style and savoir faire. Frankly, it’s too lively and enjoyable to keep the most readers who aren’t into gunfights, etc. from being turned off by the violence.
It’s a well-realized dystopia, one that’s easier to imagine happening than say, Panem. Kolakowski does a wonderful job of littering this book with little details that tell you so much about the world his characters live in and entertain the reader. Hitting both of those notes regularly is a difficult task. For example:
“Someday I want to go to California,” Michelle told Maxine. “Did you know it used to be a state?”
This far north, the concept of local government grew teeth and claws. If you stuck to the highway, you would cross into territory controlled largely by the New York Giants, which had expanded beyond its origin as one of the nation’s most consistently mediocre sports teams to control a big swath of towns northeast of Buffalo.
One of the conceits of the book is that the material is a result of an academic study about Maxine. It’s one of the best moves that Kolakowski makes in this book (and it’s full of great moves). Don’t skim over these notes, you’ll be rewarded for your attention.
Oh, I should warn you: This book might put you off popcorn for a while. I’m just saying…
Rob Hart wrote one of the endorsements for this: “Take one of Richard Stark’s Parker novels and throw it in the blender with DVDs of Mad Max and The Warriors. Guess what? You just broke your blender. Find solace in this book, which is what you should have done in the first place.” I repeat that for a couple of reasons—1. I love the last two sentences. 2. He’s right, and says everything in 4 sentences that I tried to above. You should listen to one of us. Kolakowski has outdone himself with this one, it was a pleasure from end to end. You really need to read it.
Disclaimer: I was provided a copy of this novel by the author in exchange for this post and my honest opinion. My opinions are my own, and weren’t influenced by this.