Wire to Wire (Tin House New Voice)
by Scott Sparling
Reviewed by Doug Baldwin
In Michael Slater's world, fate is delivered atop a moving freight train. It comes in the form of a live electrical wire that smacks him in the head while he attempts to smoke a joint.
"The power line kissed his forehead. It lit him up like a torch and lit the joint with 33,000 volts, but Slater never had a chance to inhale."
So begins Wire to Wire, Portland writer Scott Sparling's smart, thrilling and darkly funny debut novel. It reportedly took Sparling more than 20 years to write this book, but it reads like lightning.
Sparling launches the narrative in Manhattan. It's 1981 and Slater is toiling as an editor for a video production company. In the dead of night he pops amphetamines and cranks out pieces on topics like "Your Vasectomy and You: What Every Man Should Know."
A central (and very clever) conceit of Wire to Wire is that Slater's video monitors replay scenes from his past, such as the close encounter with the power line. These are hallucinations, specters that he cannot control. Part of his problem is the drugs. Part of it is his "rewired" brain, which, courtesy of his post-accident surgery, gives him spectacular peripheral vision and makes him see things that simply aren't there.
The author uses these imaginary video clips to drop us into key parts of the story and to tease our expectations about where things are going. But part of the fun is that nothing really goes where you expect.
Sure, we've been through this before. A damaged guy, innocent enough, gets drawn into a morass of crime. It's the stuff of American crime novels going back to, well, forever. As executed by Sparling, it all becomes fresh and highly unnerving, sort of a muscular cross between Jim Thompson and Cormac McCarthy.
The action sprawls from New York City to the story's principal action on Michigan's "Pleasant Peninsula" and aboard freight cars coursing through the Midwest, usually in the company of Slater's best friend, Harp. Train-hopping is Harp's preferred mode of recreation, a perilous activity that he equates with freedom. The novel gains much of its resonance in the contrast between Harp's desire to seek exhilaration on the rails and Slater's need to feel the safety of his Michigan hometown.
Betrayals and double-crosses abound. Fleeing a murderous encounter with a sociopathic cowboy, Slater lands in Michigan and becomes entangled with a cast of damaged characters that includes Harp's glue-sniffing lover, Lane, and her impotent brother, Charlie, who runs a brothel on Lake Michigan. When Harp gets drawn into an arson scheme cooked up by Charlie, it's inevitable that Slater will become involved and that blood will spill.
Noirish themes of infidelity, incest and corruption run through the book. But Sparling achieves something more satisfying than mere titillation. Fate might light you up like a firecracker and propel you homeward, he's telling us, but beware. Going home is really a high-wire act. As one character says, "You just move from wire to wire."