BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Following a terrorist attack that kills hundreds of thousands people in Atlanta Georgia, people around the city start to experience possessions of dead people. Popular cartoonist Finn Darby is possessed by his abusive, alcoholic grandfather, who’s been dead two years. As Finn tries to figure out what’s going on, he meets an aging rock star and a waitress (who’s possessed by Darby’s deceased wife). The dead have an agenda, and as the possessions get longer and longer, Finn and his new found friends need to figure out why they’ve been possessed before it’s too late.
PROS: An exceptional novel with interesting characters thrust into a supernatural event while retaining the intimate connections between all of the characters.
CONS: Some elements of the book are slightly under supported, and some details anchor the story in 2011.
BOTTOM LINE: A fantastic novel, up there with some of the best books that I’ve read in recent years.
My favorite book of 2011 was Will McIntosh’s first novel, Soft Apocalypse, which looks at a major decline and change of the world through the eyes of a small group of characters in the middle of Georgia. McIntosh follows up with Hitchers, a fantastic read that proves that lightning can strike twice: McIntosh is an author to watch. While Hitchers doesn’t quite top Soft Apocalypse for me, it comes very close.
The book opens with Finn and his wife Lorena, on a boat in the middle of a lake on a bad day: Lorena is killed by a lightning strike, following a confrontation with a waitress. Miles away, on the same day, Finn’s Grandfather, Tom Darby, also passes away, the creator of a mid-list comic strip (think Peanuts / Calvin and Hobbes, rather than X-Men or Superman), was an angry, abusive figure in the Darby family, and upon his death, the strip was ended. However, shortly after his grandfather’s death, Finn resurrects the comic strip to new-found popularity. Two years later, he has a television deal in the works, and he’s mentioned on Letterman, all while the comic finds new audiences. He’s even getting into dating again, just as a terrorist attack spreads weaponized anthrax throughout downtown Atlanta, killing 600,000 people, and throwing the city into chaos.
And that’s when things get weird. Finn begins having strange utterances: things only his grandfather would say, and slowly, he begins to realize that the man has come back from the dead, and he isn’t happy with what Finn’s done with his creation. Finn soon connects with an aging rock star, Mick, who has the spirit of a former collaborator hitching onto him, and soon, he’s contacted by his dead wife, who’s hitched onto the waitress whom Finn had met on the day of his wife’s death. As the spirits begin to gain more control over their host bodies, the trio must find out why they’ve returned, and what they can do to survive.
Following McIntosh’s first, fantastic novel, I was a bit skeptical of the premise of Hitchers: on the face of it, it appears to be a major departure from Soft Apocalypse, and in truth, it is. This book solidly falls in a realistic fantasy genre, set right in our present day: President Obama is in his third year of office, various cartoonists, such as Bill Watterson, Gary Larson and Charles Schultz are name-checked and a whole host of other little details firmly plant this story in a time and place, which is neat, but makes me wonder if it won’t be dated in a couple of decades. It probably won’t matter, because the themes of the story are likely to be ones that we’ll still turn to books to understand.
Cartoons play a big role in the way this comic goes, and one of the coolest things in the book is a handful of examples of what Toy Shop (Darby’s cartoon) looks like, and it’s brilliant. It’s witty, interesting, and it plays a key role in some of the story’s actions. While reading the book, I really wish that this was a regular, ongoing cartoon, and gives the book a real endearing quality that helps us understand the characters in a unique way.
While the genre of the book is a big leap from post-apocalyptic fiction, McIntosh carries the same depth of characters from one to the other in a layered story that gets more intriguing as it rushes along. There are several stories that are ongoing in Hitchers, some that aren’t visible from the onset, and appear towards the end, and center on the following question: why are people being possessed, and how do you get rid of someone sharing your body? As it turns out, each of the people possessing Summer, Mick and Finn have their own agendas, secrets and desires that they need to get off their chests before they go back from where they came from, a sort of underworld that parallels our own.
Characters are at the core of this book, and this is where McIntosh really stands out. There are some similar archetypes of characters between his two novels: Finn and Jasper (from Soft Apocalypse), are pretty similar, but there’s some more variety between some of the side figures, to varying degrees of detail. The real substance comes between the main three characters, and the spirits who hitched onto them. At first, the spirits are pretty rough in the glimpses that we see of them, but as they take over more and more, there’s some real heart-wrenching situations: Summer is hosting Lorena, and while Finn is constantly at odds with his grandfather, he’s torn over his wife’s reappearance in a woman that he’s increasingly attracted to.
On the periphery is a host of smaller themes that crop up and impact the story to varying degrees: there’s some religious commentary as violence towards Hitchers occurs, as well as some political points about the inability of a government agency to comprehend the issue. The biggest point looked at is how we perceive what happens after we die, and while McIntosh’s depiction is interesting, they feel at points as if they’re afterthoughts.
The only real issue that I had with the story is the terrorist attack in the beginning, which takes a bit of attention from the onset, and then vanishes out of site, and only mentioned here and there. There’s never really a good explanation for why the dead have arrived, and perhaps that’s not an important issue for the book – there’s a loose mention at one point that there’s never really been a mass-death of people on this level in modern history, and that this might have opened up some rift. Regardless, I kind of wish that the story had taken a bit of a closer look at this somehow, and while there were opportunities at points, it’s never satisfactorily followed up on.
Regardless, Hitchers is a fantastic novel, up there with some of the best books that I’ve read in recent years. It’s a quick read that doesn’t sacrifice quality for speed, and once again demonstrates McIntosh’s ability to juggle complex characters against multiple, unconventional storylines in an inventive fashion.