REVIEW SUMMARY: Overall, Shaw’s latest novel is enjoyable because of its bleakness and darkly humorous protagonist, but it was burdened at times by a lack of cohesion.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An urban crime novel set in an imagined North American city known as Auction, switching between two stories set in 1929 and 1986.
PROS: Shaw balances the violence and inhumanity of his setting with a likable set of characters.
CONS: Some unproductive plot elements slowed the narrative.
BOTTOM LINE: An interesting foray into the genre, but not an essential one.
Floodgate appears to be a new direction for crime writer Johnny Shaw. Garnering mixed reviews primarily from genre fans so far, it seems to be a far cry from what people have come to expect from this writer. Those outside the crime/gangster novel fan community may however come to a different conclusion. Auction City is clearly the winning element, a dystopian vision of festering criminal roots and endless cycles of violence. This is a novel where thugs and gangsters have evolved into diplomats and politicians.
The novel begins all the way back in 1920s America, in the middle of a gang war. The reader follows a first-person account of a man embroiled in a final battle of sorts among the riots and rampages pulling Auction city to pieces. Not long after we are introduced to the Auction of the past, we meet Andrea Destra in the present of the novel, a former police officer turned conspiracy theorist. Andy knows that Auction hangs on by a thread, making Bruce Wayne’s Gotham City look like Narnia. And yet, at the same time the boiling point has not yet been reached, making for an initially nightmarish equilibrium.
The initial conflict begins when Andy observes his adoptive mother ‘Champ’ conversing with a woman he does not know and has never seen before. Champ’s dementia and stubborn nature notwithstanding, he fails to gain an explanation and embarks on a mission to find out who she is. In keeping with Andy’s character we learn that his determination comes from an incurable curiosity that is essentially obsessive, which proves to be very useful as the novel progresses.
We then consistently switch back and forth between 1929 and 1986 as the plot develops, each time frame having its own particular kind of narrative style. The ’20s chapters reflect the gangster mind set of the narrator, with an almost McCarthian stop and start formula. Shaw uses a combination of short, non-committal sentences, be-quick-or-be-dead descriptive fragments and stoic tone to create an atmosphere of impending violence. Due in part to the choppy style and the extraneous love story, the ’20s chapters, although important in some minor respects for the plot, did not interest me nearly as much as Andy’s struggles. To the 21st Century reader the use of racist terms can be harsh to the eyes (sometimes a little over-done) but arguably a way to root Auction City in its 2’0s America backdrop. By doing this and using the occasional intertextual reference, Shaw ensures his work does not cross too far into the realm of a dystopian world. On the other hand, in the ’80s chapters we have Andy’s presence – his self-deprecating attitude and somber humor – to temper the chaos picking away at years of research and knowledge on the City he has so fervently tried to understand.
The strength of this novel lies less in its mystery and more in the love/hate relationship Andy has with Auction City. There is no true reason why the city descends into decay and corruption, why the virus of sociopathy lives on. Those secrets are long buried among re-written histories and personal accounts the citizens are too afraid to make public. Andy is another victim, and one can only imagine the effects that being brought up here have on his sanity. But at the same time, he doesn’t belong. He expects a gun to get him what he wants, he expects the lies to slowly become truths, and he expects some good old fashioned detective work to triumph over the unanswered questions he faces. But that is just not how things are done.
He also expects the team he works with to be organized, to be the good side. After committing his first murder he is drawn into a group of individuals who at first want to kill him, then want to keep him around. But then he realizes that these people are really another element that makes Auction City just about hang on, using violence and corruption to maintain the violence and corruption. These characters provide an interesting backdrop to Andy’s journey, Agnes, Kate, Rocco among several that are at once likable and also sinister. All part of the grotesque balance that keeps Auction going.
Thematically speaking, the novel is disorderly. Perception, betrayal, and identity all play a role. The mysteries are never really solved, making it less ambiguous and more discouraging. Andy appears to have found a place in this violent world, but for how long? Similarly there appears to be no end to the monstrous heart that keeps beating at the center of the city. But perhaps that was Shaw’s point. It is certainly a hard novel to define, and one that does not seem to satisfy the crime or detective fans’ lust for the answers. But the novel at least ties up some loose ends for the origins of protagonist, and he seems to have found a place for himself. He is by no means the hero of this piece, but this is most certainly a novel where heroes have always been a work of fiction alone.