Skip to main content
book review

John Semley

Look: I don't trust any hard-boiled anti-hero that doesn't smoke.

It's a small thing. But it's everything. Beyond whatever old-fangled notions of coolness a lit cigarette suggests, it above all conveys a confident fatalism. No proper badass fears death, let alone bronchitis. So I'm wary – maybe even openly contemptuous – of Spademan, the garbage-man-turned-hitman, narrator and marquee star of Canadian-born, Brooklyn-based Adam Sternbergh's cyberpunky neo-neo-noir Near Enemy.

In 2014's Shovel Ready, Sternbergh established the Spademan Universe as a franchise tentpole. Set in a near-future New York that has been left radioactive and depopulated following a dirty-bomb attack on Times Square, Shovel Ready introduced Spademan as a tight-lipped, brutally efficient contract killer armed with his trusty box cutter, seemingly hamstrung by his troublesome tendency to do the right thing. Basically: a hitman with a heart of gold. The kind of guy who carries a Zippo, but doesn't smoke.

Everything in Shovel Ready had been done before: the clipped, Chandleresque prose, the cold-blooded competence of the protagonist (see: Richard Stark's Parker novels), the dystopian sci-fi grit, etc. The novel's most warmed-over idea was the limnosphere, an immersive digital environment accessible to the super-wealthy and other escapist junkies looking to drop out of their dreary dystopia. As conceived by Sternbergh, "the limn" was equal parts William Gibson, The Matrix, Second Life, the lethally addictive "Entertainment" from Infinite Jest, and a goading, hot-take headline of the "Maybe Technology Is Making Us … Less Connected?" variety. You can do anything in the limnosphere. Except die. That's the one rule. Die in the limn and you're plunked back in real life, like when you snap awake with that socked-in-the-gut feeling after tripping over a ledge in a dream.

In Near Enemy, Sternbergh plates this reheated side dish as the main course. Early on, Spademan comes across a cadre of hackers who have apparently figured out a way to kill people in the limnosphere. Like, actually kill people. Consistent with the superficially topical morass of the Spademan U's post-9/11-sploitation aesthetic, the virtual killers appear as burka-wrapped suicide bombers. Investigating the game-changing hack leads Spademan – where else? – all the way to the top, to a conspiracy involving cops, a mayoral hopeful, "info-chaos activists," suspected Islamic radicals and a cloister of nurses.

These Spademan novels are weird. In large part, I think, because Spademan's such a tricky character to get a bead on. Like the books themselves, Spademan's more aspirant than confident in his toughness. Despite his adamant chest-puffing regarding his own professional hardiness, Spademan finds himself helping pregnant street youth, wooing nurses, eating pie on a porch swing and generally indulging in all manner of nice-guy stuff totally unbecoming of a would-be tough guy. Granted, Spademan's nothing if not self-aware. In Shovel Ready, he acknowledges that his hard drinking is clichéd. Early in Near Enemy, he notes how a character's hairdo brings out her eyes, then chides himself for sliding into softness ("Like I'm a hairdresser now"). But it's not like Sternbergh is interrogating the gap between nice guy and tough guy. Instead, he just makes the character feel sanitized and (worse) relatable, safely PG-13 despite the slashed throats and swears

This is what's exasperating about Sternbergh's Spademan stories. They're desperate. Desperate to seem edgy. Desperate to seem cool. Desperate to pass as hip and hyperviolent and ripped-from-today's-headlines. But more than anything, they're desperate to be liked. Likeability is the tough guy's curse. Their venality, their self-loathing, their self-sabotaging nihilism is what makes the badass an intoxicating character. Like the snarling cool-guy front man of a garage band, he doesn't give a rip if you like him. Underneath the faux grit, the fake dirt, the shellacked layer of noncommittal nihilism, the Spademan books feel infantile. When Sternbergh launched the series, he shrewdly maintained the books were indebted to a pulp tradition that stands outside of literary fiction. Apart from being a handy defence against the books' shortcomings – "It's just pulp! Not a real book!" – it speaks, pretty dispiritingly, to Sternbergh's ambitions.

When it's become fashionable for legal adults to whip through young-adult fiction about vampire/werewolf love trianglesor crackerjack archers growing into themselves in one or another postapocalyptic waste, it's sad that even grown-up literary entertainments feel terribly trite and dumbed down. Near Enemy's plot twists and revelations aren't so much obvious as plain boring. Did you know that people in positions of power are sometimes corrupt? Did you know that, heck, even the police aren't above such depravity? Did you ever think that maybe in the West there's a tendency to scapegoat Muslim communities? Near Enemy unfolds like Baby's First Post-9/11 Allegory.

Then there's Sternbergh's critique of the addictive pleasures of the limnosphere, which curdles into total unintelligibility. As Near Enemy narrows toward its conclusion, a group of characters "tap" into the limn, leading to a painstakingly choreographed string of ostensibly thrilling fight scenes (featuring a buff archangel armed with a sword made of fire). Here, Sternbergh's babbling out of both sides of his mouth, expecting the reader to be positively captivated by something they're simultaneously supposed to take as bad, if not entirely soul-polluting. It's straight-up incoherent. (And speaking of: How is Spademan, a first-person narrator, able to acquire the requisite omniscience to describe incidents he's not personally witness to?) As Near Enemy thuds onto its requisite cliffhanger – which might as well come tagged with "ADAM STERNBERGH'S SPADEMAN WILL RETURN!" – the mixed-messaging, simplistic politicking and video-game action sequences are enough to induce a throbbing stress headache.

I can't speak for ol' Spademan. But personally? This guy needs a cigarette.