By Adam Sternbergh
First Published: 2014
Jacket Design by Will Staehle
Review © 2014 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Noir Thriller, Science Fiction, Post-Apocalyptic
Shovel Ready is a hard-boiled noir science fiction thriller with a strong emphasis on the noir. It’s an impressive debut novel from Adam Sternbergh who imagines a dark, dangerous, and damaged New York city in a not too far off future. A large part of the city has been abandoned after a series of terrorist attacks including one with a dirty bomb bring death and destruction to one of the most popular cities in the world. Most of the residents who remain can’t afford to leave or are two stubborn to know better. However there are still a fair number of the extremely wealthy who stay because they can afford to spend most of their time plugged into virtual worlds while paid help keeps them safe. In nearby Hoboken New Jersey, a former garbage man who calls himself Spademan falls into a slightly different line of work which pays a whole lot more money. He works as a hit man. However, when he gets a job to eliminate the daughter of one of the richest men in the country, he finds events rapidly spiraling out of control.
Shovel Ready is narrated in the first person by Spademan who is the epitome of an anti-hero. Having lost his wife in the attacks, he has obviously suffered severe emotional damage and his defense has been to dispense with most emotions other than anger. He only has a couple of conditions for a job; the money needs to be deposited up front and the victim needs to be an adult. He states, “I kill women because I don’t discriminate. I don’t kill children because that’s a different kind of psycho.” Needless to say you don’t get a lot of emotional depth out of the main character. What you get is very direct and concise narration as the events unfold. Spademan is not a sympathetic protagonist and he’s not looking for any sympathy but he does have his own standards and morals. When he meets a young girl that is in the most serious of trouble, he discovers a few tiny cracks in his emotional amour and finds he needs to help.
With Spademan’s economical narration style which is extremely sparse at times and a fast paced plot, the pages fly by. This is not a dense work of literature. It’s a lean and intense thriller that does a good job of keeping the reader engaged. Spademan tries to keep his jobs as simple as possible but on this new job he runs into strange mysteries and then begins ruffling powerful feathers. When the wrong people discover his involvement, he finds that not only is he in danger but so is anyone else associated with him. Soon the bodies start piling up including good guys, bad guys, and innocent bystanders.
Violence is a given when the main character is a hit man and this novel delivers extreme violence in both real and virtual worlds. The villain in this novel is the leader of the fastest growing church in America. He also has some dark and sordid secrets which he is desperate to keep hidden and, with his wealth, he can afford to have anyone causing him trouble either bought off or taken out. His evangelism has been extremely successful because of an innovative idea; his church offers the chance to experience heaven on earth through the most advanced virtual environment available in the world. With New York in as bad as shape as it is, the church sees an opportunity to find plenty of recruits who would love to be able to spend some time away from their real lives while struggling through life on the slow path to the afterlife.
This novel does not spend a lot of time with character development. We gradually get to know Spademan through his actions and snippets of thoughts about the past. He’s an everyman turned anti-hero who doesn’t hesitate to make life or death decisions based on his strong core values. He’s quite likeable at times despite his emotional detachment but when some of his close associates are murdered he seems almost indifferent. Outside of Spademan, the most fully developed character is the city of New York, itself. After a mini apocalypse has turned the city upside down, New York has been transformed into a shell of its former self and it is described in intimate detail as it continues to survive and evolve in new ways.
Shovel Ready is a highly entertaining, fast paced novel of the noir that is as hard boiled as you can get. It is a promising debut novel and I would be surprised if the anti-here Spademan does not return for another adventure. For those who enjoy noir thrillers or post-apocalyptic fiction and are not put off by ferocious violence, Shovel Ready will make for a terrific summer read.