I've commented in the past about the wonderful weirdness of watching Korean movies and not knowing enough about the cast to know who the hero is supposed to be or whether the camera's hovering on someone important to the plot. It didn't occur to me till I was reading Urban Waite's first novel that the same unsettling uncertainty hovers over any first book. Sure, there are only so many ways that a book can go, only so many stories to be told, but just how is this one going to play out? Where's the focus going to rest? How straight is it going to played? And this is not the same as wondering whether the book is going to surprise me; it's more that with an unknown talent, you just don't know what's waiting for you in the shadows on the other side of the page you're reading right now.
The Terror of Living is a spare, simple thriller which I rushed through in less than a day. It's that weird thing, a well-written page-turner, every word carefully chosen and committed to the page only when Waite was confident that it would add something to our understanding of the characters. In an afterword he name-checks inspiration from all kinds of writers, but I can readily imagine an approving nod from one he conspicuously leaves out; unlike Rachel Aaron, Waite has taken Elmore Leonard's advice to heart, never telling the reader anything that he doesn't need to be told.
I never blogged anything about No Country for Old Men, since at the time the blog policy was that I was trying to amuse myself by ripping into things which were bad enough to be sarcastic about. It's relevant here, however, because The Terror of Living shares a lot of DNA with it, and demonstrates rather beautifully that you can take the same story again and again and find new things to do with it, if you're a good enough writer. Both books share a drug deal gone wrong and an implacable killer hunting down the people on the edges of it. But Waite takes those ideas to his own places. I haven't read McCarthy's book - Blood Meridian convinced me that I couldn't hack his prose style - but The Terror of Living can certainly go at least a couple of rounds with the movie without embarrassing itself.
It's not without its oddities; there's a whole swathe of the cast who never get any names, and Waite handles the decision deftly, always finding a way to make it clear who he's talking about without letting it become a distraction. It adds to the unease which pervades the whole book; are we meeting someone who's about to die? About to kill someone else? Who's going to get out of this thing in one piece? We get deeper into the named characters; Hunt, the ageing rancher who makes ends meet by smuggling drugs across the Canadian border; Drake, the sheriff's deputy who wrecks one of the smuggling runs and triggers off the action of the book, and Grady, the dribbling psycho turned loose on everyone else to clean up the loose ends the money men can't tolerate. And yet, though we learn more about their lives and what makes them run in their different directions, somehow, this doesn't cloak them with the invulnerability which comes with top billing in a movie; all the characters have been sketched in so solidly that the risk to any of them feels imminent and terrible. For at least the first half of the book, it feels as though anyone could die at any time - and by the second half of the book, enough bodies have fallen that only an idiot would be confident that anyone still standing has a guarantee.
Another interesting stylistic choice is that there's no shouting; or rather, that Waite never tries to do shouting in dialogue. Instead he describes the confusion that sweeps through either the person yelling or the person trying to make sense of the yelling. I'd never seen that done before, and it's a wonderfully low key way to conveying the shift from the rational to the furious. I know that only yesterday I was approvingly quoting Leonard's dictum to delete anything that feels like writing, but sometimes writing is clever enough that it would almost be offensive not to notice it.
The Terror of Living is not the most impressive book I've read this year, since Angelmaker has left a very high bar to clear. But it's one of the best thrillers I've ever read and a hell of a promising start for Waite.