Review: BLACKBIRDS by Chuck Wendig
This pains me, but I didn’t enjoy Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig as much as I had wanted to. I’m a big fan of Wendig’s online, expletive-laden, deliciously-vulgar and self-described dubious writing advice. Much has been made on Wendig’s blog and twitter feed about Blackbirds, so I was prepared to really enjoy it. I wanted to really enjoy it. I picked up a copy last week and read it over the next few days, and while it wasn’t really bad, it wasn’t as good as I had hoped.
I suppose the Buddha was right that all expectations lead to disappointment. Makes book marketing tough, mind you. Twitter doesn’t really lend itself to subtlety.
Blackbirds is the story of Miriam Black, a young drifter who has a unique gift: with just one touch she can tell when, where and how you will die. The whole story of your death plays out before her eyes in just a quick blink. This, as you might imagine, causes some consternation for young Miriam, until she learns how to profit from her gift. When she comes in contact with someone who is near their demise, she shadows them and like a vulture, picks over their bones (and their pockets) when they croak. Despite this predilection for profiting from other’s bereavement, Black remains a tortured soul.
It’s a great premise, and Miriam is an interesting character, with a complexity that makes her both hard to love and lovable at the same time. She’s crass and fowl mouthed, and extremely violent, but with a latent tenderness that is seeking a soul to settle on.
In the end Blackbirds is a violent and disturbing incursion into the very darkest corners of human nature. Miriam’s gift comes to the attention of some very bad people and they fix their attention on exploiting the exploiter.
It struck me as I was reading Blackbirds that the world that Chuck Wendig creates must exist somewhere, but it’s so dark, so craven, that I have a hard time accepting it. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief, as all fiction begs us to do. Maybe that’s just me. Maybe I live in a naive, rose-coloured world where the sort of uni-dimensional characters that make up Blackbird’s list of bad-guys simply can’t be real. I had the same feeling recently while reading The Glass Rainbow, the most recent offering by James Lee Burke, one of my favourite mystery writers: how could so many truly awful people all find each other in a place like New Iberia, Louisiana, or in the case of Blackbirds, the truck-stops and diners along the Interstates of Pennsylvania?
I’m not a prude: a curse a blue streak, both in real life and in fiction. My kids are growing rich from the swear jar in my house. My most recent fictional antagonist is a psychopath who enjoys a good torture session as much as Wendig’s character Herriot does. That’s not what bothered me in Blackbirds. What got me was the lack of restraint: sometimes you don’t need three or four contiguous descriptions of vulgarity to explain an act of psychopathic homicide or torment. Sometimes one will do. Let the reader fill in some of the blanks.
I read Blackbirds cover-to-cover in a couple of days, though one of those included a cross-country plane trip, so that gave me a few extra hours. I’m a pretty slow reader, so I either motored through it, or it was a pretty easy read, or both. The ending was satisfying, but not surprising. The much vaulted act of redemption, of balancing the equation, that leads to the altering of a man’s fate, felt a little contrived.
The sequel, Mockingbirds, will be out in 2013. I’ll likely pick it up, with lower expectations, just to see what fate has in store for the young woman who knows so many other’s providence. In the mean time, I’ll keep reading Wendig’s excellent and hilariously crude advice for writers. Somehow there all the vulgarity works.