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book review

Readers may respond to James Grainger’s nasty stare at our apocalypse-in-our-time unease.

Today's fiction rarely has kind things to say about the middle-aged male psyche. Whether through hyper-masculine compensation, nostalgic tales of misspent youth or creepy accounts of abuse, most literary depictions of this maligned demographic might as well be accompanied by the warning sign: "Here be dragons!"

Indeed, James Grainger's debut novel drags the reader through a very masculine world of violence, pornography, rivalry and suspicion, dialling up the stakes from his 2004 collection The Long Slide (which analyzed a more hopeful, postgrad cast) by becoming a mean, fast-paced and well-constructed thriller.

Harmless's protagonist is Joseph: a divorced online columnist on a strained weekend getaway with his teenage daughter, Franny. A disappointment to his ex-wife, undervalued for his writing and on the brink of cultural obsolescence, Joseph is at once sympathetic and enraging – a Gen-Xer on the losing end of economics, still chasing the ego-boosting wisps of bygone affairs.

Chief among these is Jane, Joseph's ex-lover, who now plays mom and apron-wearing host to the country retreat and reunion. Joining them are two other couples from Joseph's idealized past, including Jane's current husband, Alex, and their own teenaged daughter, Rebecca.

As the drunk reminiscing and father-daughter bonding commences, Joseph immediately begins horning in on Jane, allowing Alex to emerge as the novel's primary foil. Described as "biblically stern," he's everything Joseph's not: a "good father, a model of engagement and authority," full of "idealism and unflagging energy." Once the founder of an alt-school, urban food co-op and communal garden, Alex now makes furniture and hosts weekly meetings for the local bumpkins – clandestine gatherings to discuss banking crises, unemployment, climate change and how an "egalitarian community would function at the domestic level."

Uninterested in getting wasted and waxing nostalgic, Alex also comes off as a bummer, hurt that his cohort won't engage in talk of neoliberalism or a utopian alternative. And while he's Joseph's natural enemy – he'd "stolen Jane away from him" – he's also another example of Gen-X disappointment. With his unfinished movies, failed activism and lost jobs, he's retreated to make cabinets in the middle of nowhere ("Ye Olde Time Colonial Town," Joseph sneers) and dream up apocalyptic backup plans.

Without the promotional material, I might've assumed this was the heart of the novel: a struggle between two equally inadequate male responses to debt, aging and fatherhood in 2015 – Joseph's ironic womanizing and man-boy evasions versus Alex's sincere re-engagement with community and family. Isolation versus apprenticeship, selfishness versus steadfastness, city versus country. But something more exciting emerges.

As the sun sets, the adults get seriously stoned, Joseph and Jane do a very bad thing, and that's when young Franny and Rebecca go missing – as in vanished, lost in the inky wilderness, with the surrounding forest standing as some primeval abyss. From page one, Grainger throws us into a sticky marsh of decades-old debts. There's a lot to absorb at once, and the prose matches this interpersonal complexity: Sentences are ratcheted up to a high-tuned writerly pitch. It makes for some vivid, verb-rich passages but can also seem on the verge of snapping, approaching Richard Powers and Colson Whitehead levels of sentence-torque before backing down. At the midway mark, Harmless loses its sentence-level clutter and breathes a little easier: By transforming into the thriller it's designed to be, it becomes a stirring read.

Here Joseph and Alex arm themselves with weapons and dive into the woods to find the girls. What follows is their awkward, semi-stoned, grief-wracked stumble toward an abandoned commune, a reputed squat for war vets – ghostly men and potential abductors – and Joseph's constant interior monologue of self-reproach; he feels "directly responsible," wishing he weren't "the kind of man who wrote columns … and then got stoned and lost his daughter in the countryside."

Add to this a red tapestry of violence and sexual paranoia. Dogs and coyotes tear each other apart and men stomp their corpses. Joseph dismembers a chicken, wipes the blood on a door frame. His savage id emerges as a stream of ghastly images: "soldiers tearing a naked woman limb from limb" among them. Earlier, he and Alex worry about their daughters' scant clothing, a porn culture lionizing the "gangbang, rape," and the ever-lascivious male glare. With the girls missing, fatherly protectiveness rises to a fever-dream – when they encounter four teens watching homemade kiddie porn in a shack, they descend like Furies, burning their smut-hut to the ground and chasing the boys into the murk. Joseph imagines castrating, flaying, sodomizing the girls' captors, charged with a sudden and uncharacteristic urgency.

Amid the darkness, the men attempt to find common ground, agreeing that it's finally time to stand tall and take charge. Exploration biographies, tales of odyssey and adventure, knightly missions into forests – such fantasies fuel their mutual delusions, their boyhood models used to fashion fractured adult identities. But after eating the indignities, lowering returns and bloodless griping of their "downwardly mobile" generation, the charge to take direct action feels like an invigorating – and relatable – dose of madness.

Harmless is admirable for its exciting pace, throbbing menace and intelligent juggling of germane societal concerns. While truly growing to care for any character (so needy, so damn selfish) might be an emotional stretch after such a brief dance, readers may respond to Grainger's nasty stare at our apocalypse-in-our-time unease. It's a book made for today, certainly – one bubbling with contagious cultural dread, offering another look at men that refuses to mask intentions or make excuses.

Spencer Gordon is the author of Cosmo.

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