Saturday, 9 November 2013

Urban Waite: Dead If I Don't

The Terror of Living was a tough act to follow, and Dead If I Don't disappointed me by being merely good, rather than breathtaking. From reading the afterword, I suspect it was because Waite didn't get the time he needed to produce another blinder; there's a reference to the manuscript being overdue.

Like The Terror of Living, Dead If I Don't is about the bloody aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong, this time in New Mexico rather than Washington State. One of the impressive things about The Terror of Living was Waite's knack of sketching in character after character and making them feel real and threatened. Somehow, Dead If I Don't doesn't land this. It's odd, because in his second book, Waite moved away from showing us a bunch of strangers just missing each other again and again, and instead tried to show us a set of small town people who've known each other for ages. It ought to have been easier to get a sense of them from the way that they keep mulling over their shared pasts, but somehow they never grab the imagination the way the characters of The Terror of Living did. 

I find myself struggling to find something clever to say about the book; it's a good book, but it's not essential reading. Ray Lamar's fate seems sealed from the moment we meet him, and the question for the book is not so much what's going to happen to him as what damage he's going to cause before it happens. It's difficult to make that a gripping story; the suspense is going to have to lie in what's in store for the side characters, and that in turn has to come out of how much we care about them. This might be where Waite has gone wrong; part of the story he's telling is about the way that Lamar and his friends and family have been sleepwalking through their lives since a tragedy ten years in the past. The problem is that they're still sleepwalking as all hell breaks loose around them, and somehow, their numbed responses to chaos are numbing for the reader as well. The result felt fuzzy and disconnected, when The Terror of Living was gripping and frightening.

Waite remains a very skilled writer, someone whose natural skill with language outclasses his chosen genre. The blown deadlines show here and there; Waite is a man who knows about people, not things, and you can see much more attention going into the perfect word for people's emotions than for things around them, which can be jarring when he's built up so much of a point about Lamar's skill with guns, and then has him thinking about how he's putting shotgun shells into a rifle. That's the kind of thing which gets fixed in the edit, but they seem to have run out of time.

I mentioned in my earlier post that Waite seemed to be working off a template which Cormac McCarthy uses; of the swirling pointlessness and inevitability of violence in the drug wars along America's borders, and in this book, Waite chose to locate the action in the 1990s, just as McCarthy put No Country for Old Men in the 1980s. The key misstep may have been to try to use a week's concentrated action as a way to reflect on a decade's wrongdoing by Ray Lamar himself; Waite didn't really give himself space to let us feel that decade of failure, and I'm still not sure if he was trying to make a larger point about the cartels' reign of terror through the 1980s and 1990s along the border. If he was, there's a better book which explores the same theme, Don Winslow's slow and heartbreaking The Power of the Dog.

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