Garbageman and killer-for-hire Spademan (the name perhaps not just a shovel reference, but a possible nod to Sam Spade and Shovel Ready’s noir sensibilities) doesn’t care who you want dead or why. It’s enough that you can pay, and that you found his number.
Adam Sternbergh’s debut novel is crafted of terse prose, told mainly through the thoughts and observations of Spademan, as a simple job turns out to have unusual complications. Set against powerful enemies, Spademan navigates a near-future New York that is teetering on collapse following a dirty bomb in Times Square. Sternbergh steers clear of a wildly evolved sci-fi future, hewing instead to a city we know and vice that has its roots in noir thrillers of the past and the fears and weapons of today – a gun is a gun, a knife is a knife, and the opiates of the day are old time religion and an alternate reality that is a bare step ahead of today’s technology. To the extent that our stories are a reflection of our society, Sternbergh chooses to spare us the false comforts of violence through fictitious tools. The dangers are imminent, and the characters’ failings have their roots in today’s world. In this manner, he succeeds in reflecting today’s comfortable complacence and moral flexibility.
Ostensibly a noir-thriller with all the requisite twists, double-crosses, and a broad spectrum of matter-of-fact violence, Shovel Ready is equally a memory play; each corner of the city highlighting Spademan’s half-obliterated morals and indelible past. Escape comes for some in a bottle, and for some in a technology-based alternate reality. Memory here is a weapon, too: a weapon of reality against the easy slide into escapism. Sternbergh finds a fine balance, alternately riding the action of the plot and unearthing enough of Spademan’s past to humanize a man who describes himself as, “…more like a bullet. Just point.”
Though clearly the product of a different voice, anyone who enjoyed Todd Babiak’s Come Barbarians will relish digging into Shovel Ready.
Reviewed by Andrew Long