Following up on his near future dystopia Soft Apocalypse (2011), Hugo winner and Nebula nominee Will McIntosh (for the story "Bridesicle," Asimov's, June 2010) turns to a dark fantasy, at times bordering on horror. Hitchers is a quick, pleasantly readable book (despite its dark elements) that gets that way by privileging story above all else, and by putting emotional blinders on, for most of the book, to the events it depicts. Its almost odd geniality scants opportunities, jars against some of the book's content, narrows its focus, and reduces its significance to not much more than a mildly amusing pastime.
Finn Darby is a cartoonist who is starting to enjoy great success with his strip, Toy Shop, which he's continued drawing against the wishes of its originator, his dead grandfather, an abusive, alcoholic, paraplegic bully. Finn lost his wife in a freak accident two years ago, the same day his grandfather died. He's trying to date but it's not going well.
Early in the book, a terrorist attack kills half a million or so people in Finn's home city of Atlanta, and he loses his two best friends. He also dies himself, for a few minutes, though he's brought back to life.
Soon, Finn and others in his area begin to suffer attacks in which they appear to be taken over by the dead. Finn’s "Hitcher" (as the revenant spirits are called) turns out to be his grandfather, Tom, who is determined to take over Finn's life and career. Finn's dead wife, Lorena, also comes back, a source of both joy and pain. Finn teams with an aging rock star and a waitress he's drawn to, who also have hitchers, to try to find a way to send the dead back to Deadland (as they call it) before they're evicted from their own bodies.
McIntosh has a pleasing, easy to read style, spare but not excessively so, and he keeps the story moving. In fact, his style could be called light, and he could have employed it writing a comedy or a farce. The scene that immediately follows Lorena's wrenching death is Finn's first attempt to date. It's all going wrong with Lyndsay, whom Finn met on Match.com, and in a panic he calls his friend Annie from a restaurant bathroom. What ensues, to the sound of other people peeing and the embarrassment of being overheard in a bathroom, is very much a conversation out of a romantic comedy where the best friend (male or female) provides a humorous and warm play by play to the embarrassing on-screen situation. Annie asks "Is she ugly?" twice, sends a "Big hug," and, finding out she is not ugly, asks,
"Hey, what if she offers to sleep with you?"
"She's not going to."
"But what if she does? You said she was good looking."
An image of Lyndsay unbuttoning her silk blouse flashed through my mind. I banished it.
"Are you going to kiss her goodnight?" Annie persisted.
"Then what are you going to do? Are you going to shake her hand?" Her tone was teasing now. (pp. 9-13)
As this suggests, the protagonists are likeable if shallow everypersons, suitable for a comedy or an adventure, where you don't want to be bogged down in introspection and character is not the point. And in fact, despite its horrific events there's nothing in Hitchers's tone to indicate that it is not intended as a comedic adventure, albeit perhaps a black one in the mode of Christopher Moore. The book is larded with pop culture references that keep the tone light; many result from Finn's occupation. When thinking about the financial effects on his grandmother of his grandfather's death and the end of the strip (before he takes it over): "When was the last time anyone manufactured a Nancy and Sluggo t-shirt, or a Dick Tracy toy radio watch? When a strip dies (unless it's an iconic strip that's become part of the fabric of our culture. Like, oh, I don’t know . . . Peanuts?), people tend to forget it" (p. 4). Certainly bad or horrific things can happen in pop culture laden fiction, as Stephen King's work demonstrates. But these references don't play against the book's darker aspects to provide an extra chill, and the result of their triviality is to provide a certain insulation against seriousness.
The only solid indication that Hitchers is not meant to be comedic is that it never is; its events never bear out the lightness of its tone, and even work against it. The book's few blackly humorous moments are neither emphasized nor exploited, as Moore might have done. When Hitchers veers toward explicit horror, during some of the visits from Finn's nasty grandfather, or in descriptions of Deadland, McIntosh pulls back.
The book includes some of Finn's cartoons, drawn by Scott Brundage in a style that's a bit reminiscent of Calvin and Hobbes or Michael Jantze's The Norm. The first few are simply humorous, and all, even those used to reflect or forward the action of the book, have a comedic aspect; it's built into the medium, even in a strip which recapitulates Finn's wife's horrific death. This particular strip encapsulates the novel's uncomfortable mix: horrific and humorous, but not fully either, nor yet an uninhibited use of black humor, especially since our reaction is tempered by Finn's use of the strip for a serious purpose, and the distress it causes him and others who know what it represents.
The heart of Hitchers is the problem of the Hitchers, the characters' coming to grips with it, and finally solving it. One could almost get the same experience as reading the book by hearing a full plot summary. McIntosh introduces events and then doesn't take up their meanings and possibilities, or allow them full emotional impact; the book seems to intentionally skirt the very things it portrays, or vitiate the impact of serious events by wandering off into trivia. In a phone call, Finn and his agent discuss Finn's near death and the murder of half a million people. The agent says it seems some nut could have sold the anthrax to the perpetrators. Finn's thought is, "Some Nut. I'd be willing to put money on Some Nut being involved" (p. 38). They immediately go on to discuss his strip and the syndicate, though Finn is too upset to work. Then, in a very brief seven pages, Finn discovers the dead body of a close friend, watches body bags being buried that he thinks probably include that friend and two others, and moves on to other concerns: the strip (recalling advice given him by Cathy Guisewite of Cathy) and the "ailment" that will turn out to be a Hitcher. Yes, trivia does intervene in the midst of or following on tragedy, but given the obsessive power of grief and distress, it doesn't take over, as it does in this book. This doesn't seem like the realistic depiction of unruly life disrespecting tragedy, it feels like the evasion of tragedy for the sake of plot and to maintain a reader-friendly tone that, in the face of the book's events, seems odd. Upon learning the reason for the attack that killed his two friends, and a half-million others, Finn muses, "It was over, though. Case closed. Move along, nothing more to see here. Maybe we could all stop talking about it every minute of every day and try to move on now" (p. 56). This perfunctory treatment is typical of the book.
Scenes of sustained emotions are saved for the last twenty pages or so, in which the climactic exchanges between Finn and Tom and Finn and Lorena occur. We've gone through most of the novel wearing emotional and psychological blinders, presumably for the same reason a horse wears them: to keep us moving forward, undistracted. At the end, they're finally, briefly, removed. The difference in tone in this section is notable.
An author shouldn't bog the story down with extras, but he should bog it down a little with the things actually occurring in it. McIntosh is so interested in telling the story, he won't stop to see what effect the events of that story should or would have as they unfold, and since he doesn't do that, he doesn't match his tone to those potential effects. For much of the book, the mismatch between tone and event is palpable. McIntosh is either not in control of his tone or is in too great control of it. One indication that he isn't is that, in such a relatively lightweight book, we're given a vision of an unavoidable afterlife so grim that it overshadows the rest of the events of the story. No matter what good things the characters find or achieve, Deadland awaits them. As Finn thinks: "The uncertainty of life after death had always terrorized us, now it was replaced by a new terror—the certainty of it, of what it was" (p. 280). If gratuitously happy elements make for a "feel-good" book, then McIntosh has written a "feel-bad" book.
On the level of story alone, Hitchers is involving, basically satisfying, and relatively entertaining, but it's almost impossible to ignore the puzzling dissonance of tone. The ability to move a story along and to hold the reader's interest are great ones for a writer to have, but they aren't the only thing. Despite its relative success on the level of story, this novel leaves us wondering at all the possibilities it raises and neglects, its avoidance of all-out humor and horror, and the relative avoidance of emotion. Together, they keep it from being either significant or memorable.
Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published two dozen short stories with more forthcoming, and over three hundred nonfiction pieces; he currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. His fiction appeared most recently in Best of Talebones. He's married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book export business.