Saturday, May 15, 2010

Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here

Perhaps Jack Reacher and I would get along smashingly, were we to meet through some twist of fate in an out-of-the-way diner... two people who happened to be eating solo, until we happened upon a more pleasant way to pass the time by munching our burgers or grilled cheese together, chatting companionably in a vinyl-covered booth. Or maybe we’d be standing next to each other in a dimly-lit, down-on-its-heels bar one evening, waiting to catch the sullen bartender’s attention, and we’d strike up a friendly discussion about the poor service--only to find the conversation turning naturally to other things, and continuing in just such a convivial manner for the next few hours. We might talk of mutual interests, or about places we’d been or people we’d met... or maybe we’d just be content to ramble on about nothing much at all. Yes, it pleases me to think that this fascinating, enigmatic man and I would be able to while away a little idle time together, in such a way that left each of us with warm fuzzies about the chance meeting, with nice little memories to tuck away in the recesses of our minds.
For that, you see, is the kind of thing that happens all the time to Jack Reacher, self-styled loner--a Caine bent on walking the Earth (or at least a goodly portion of the U.S.); he’s used to the random crossing of paths with complete strangers, which generally leaves an indelible, if perhaps small, impression.
I’ve been reading Lee Child’s thrillers featuring intelligent action-hero Jack Reacher for several years, now, but he’s still a pretty big mystery. (And yes, “big” has dual meanings here; the man is 6’5” and tops out at 250 lbs.) “Pretty big mystery” is just the way Reacher, ex-MP (retired as a major from the Army), likes it, though; his current mission is to be little more than an enigmatic stranger, always on the move, experiencing life as he comes across it.
At least, that’s what he always tells people--that he’s just passing through, and that he’s on his way to the next place--which is rarely a firm destination, but rather, a vague “somewhere” down the road. The problem is that Reacher is never quite able to manage that “just passing through” bit; his sense of justice and desire to see wrongs made right always seem to find him, instead, sticking around just a little bit longer in whatever place he’s recently landed, be it a major metropolitan area or Podunk, USA.
Reacher certainly makes the right motions for someone constantly on the move; just as the proverbial rolling stone shall gather no moss, the always-on-the-move Reacher shall remain unencumbered by worldly possessions. His travel kit consists of the clothes on his back, some cash, a collapsible toothbrush, and an expired passport--period, that’s all. No rucksack with a change of clothes (he just buys new, utilitarian ones when the ones he’s been wearing are past their prime); no credit cards (with ATMs on nearly every corner, he rarely finds himself unable to access the money in his bank account); and no keys (he owns neither vehicle nor house). After so many years of living within a rigid system and following a specific set of rules, Reacher has chosen a life for himself in which he answers to no one and makes any rules he sees fit to make as he goes.
In Child’s twelfth Reacher novel--Nothing to Lose--we find Reacher passing through a pair of small towns in Colorado. His first stop is Hope, a neat and tidy little hamlet, which puts me in mind of a modern-day Mayberry. Pleasant, but nothing much to see or do, and no reason to stick around. The next day, he plans to go through the neighboring town of Despair, about 16 miles away, before continuing westward. 
His first hint at something odd is when he can’t hitchhike from Hope to Despair... not because none of the passing cars will stop for him, but because there aren’t any cars passing him. And it only gets stranger once he reaches the downtrodden little town (after having walked the entire distance), which seems to be the polar opposite of tidy Hope. He finds a cafe, thinking to have some lunch, but the waitress refuses to serve him, and the other customers let him know in no uncertain terms that he's not welcome. Then the muscle shows up--a couple of beefy guys, about half of the Despair PD. Things do not go well; there’s a confrontation, Reacher puts one of the officers out of commission, and winds up in the back of a police car on a short trip to the Despair jail. He gets a “hearing” in front of the local judge a few hours later, only to be deemed a vagrant and banned from town, as part of their no-vagrants mandate. An officer drives Reacher to the mid-way point between Despair and Hope--the place where one township ends and the other begins--and drops him off, right there, in the middle of the road. Within a few minutes he’s met by a Hope police officer--who'd been courtesy-called about Reacher’s arrival back within the Hope limits--to escort him back into Hope, and she tells him that this sort of thing happens with some frequency. Despair, it seems, has become quite serious about maintaining a strict no-visitors policy.
Unfortunately for the not-so-fine people of Despair, they have just aggravated (and kicked out of town) the absolute wrong man. Reacher is the sort of guy who has to know why things happen; it is simply impossible for him to walk away from such bizarre treatment without getting to the bottom of it. He soon finds--via surreptitious return visits back to Despair (his Army training always serves him well) and from questioning (even, occasionally, beating the answers out of) the people he encounters there--that there are some very strange things going on, indeed. Reacher stumbles across a dead body... which later disappears without a trace. The enormous recycling plant--employer to 99% of the residents of Despair--has a surprising amount of security, and they seem to be guarding a number of secrets. A small plane flies out of the recycling plant each evening, only to return in the wee hours of the morning. Just down the road from Despair, in the opposite direction, an active military outpost has been set up to guard... something. And young women keep showing up in Hope, anxiously waiting for their young men to return from Despair. None of it makes sense, but Reacher knows that somehow, in the end, it all must. He'll stick around until he pieces together the truth and has done all he can to mete out justice as he sees fit.
I didn’t see most of the answers coming; as usual, Child does an excellent job at crafting a complex tale which takes considerable effort on Reacher’s part to figure out. The connections he eventually made between seemingly disparate pieces of information, and the conclusions he finally comes to, are fascinating. 
There are always a couple of guarantees when cracking open a new Reacher book--one, that a ride which is equal parts exciting and smart from beginning to end awaits, and two, that Reacher will do the best he can to fix just a little bit more, before moving on down the road, to the next town, and the next adventure.
Meanwhile, think I’m gonna hold onto that cool little dream of meeting Jack Reacher someday, on the road to somewhere. The tales he could tell...
GlamKitty rating: 4.25 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)

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