Although Stephenson credits the hard-boiled detective novels of James Crumley as the spiritual spark plug for this antic thriller, these adventures of an ultrahip sleuth who tracks ecological crooks owe more to the comic iconoclasm of Richard Farina and William Kotzwinkle—and the immature campus high jinks of Stephenson's own The Big U (1984)—than to Crumley's knowing, semitragic ironies. Narrator Sangamon Taylor, "the granola James Bond," is the resident gumshoe of GEE, a Greenspeace clone based in Boston and dedicated to nonviolent sabotage of polluting companies. A self-styled "professional asshole," late-20s Taylor dresses like a slob, struts his self-righteousness like a badge, and lists nitrous oxide as his drug of choice. Fortunately, he also spins a funny, cocky, engaging rap as he tells of his battle with the villainous Basco company—a battle catalyzed by his find that lobsters in Boston Harbor are packed with PCBs, legacy of an illegal 1956 dumping by Basco. A nighttime boat duel with Basco's goons—Sangamon on his trusty Zodiac raft, the heavies on a smuggler's Cigarette speedster—and a daytime showdown in Basco's boardroom plunges Sangamon into hot water as Basco frames him as a terrorist bomber, sending him on the run. Hiding out in Maine, Sangamon joins forces with a real, world-class terrorist; after they make national news by foiling an assassination attempt on Basco's owner by a polluted Basco employee, they return to Boston to tackle the Big Problem: in trying to cover up its PCB dumping, Basco has loosed a gene-spliced organism that threatens to convert all the salt in the sea to organic chlorine. A violent confrontation in Boston Harbor (on an island of garbage inhabited by fans of a satanic heavy-metal band), a tense brush with a lethal Navy SEAL, and a "mediagenic" assault on a Basco ship loaded with pollutants end this manic tale. Stephenson's high-octane narration, drenched in environmental lore, grabs from start to finish despite its cloying smugness; a likely hit in college/cult circles, this book—with film rights already sold—may entice a wider readership as well.
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