Spider-Man lore is one layer of this superbly suspenseful first novel about two loners, improbable lawbreakers, on a mission to Chicago.
How do you get out of Iowa? Sheila Gower would love to know. Bored silly by her family and hometown, the high school senior fantasizes about immigrating to Paris before her French teacher discourages her. The solution is one of the regulars at the gas station where she works the swing shift. Peter Parker (Spider-Man’s “real” name) is a cabdriver in his mid-20s and is clearly attracted to her. Sheila learns from her research that Spider-Man was unable to save his first girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, from the villainous Green Goblin. But when Peter shows her a gun at the station, suggesting they fake a kidnapping, empty the cash register and drive to Chicago, daredevil Sheila is up for it. Peter’s story reveals him as more victim than creep. He was only 6 when his much older brother committed suicide, an overdose. Seeking escape, Peter immersed himself in the Spider-Man books; his mother, sensing his trauma, let him assume Spider-Man’s name. Peter’s not crazy; he knows he lacks superhuman powers, but he does have premonitions in his dreams, and when a recurrent dream features the gas-station girl, a gun (found in his mother’s underwear drawer) and Chicago, he swings into action. Bruni does a masterful job evoking their world, equal parts fantasy and reality and further skewed by a downtown Chicago that’s been invaded by coyotes. Their chemistry changes as they become mutually dependent lovers and Sheila, no dummy, realizes that Peter’s plan—to rescue a man haunting his dreams—is no plan at all. When push comes to shove, and the fugitives are in danger of exposure, it is Sheila/Gwen’s quick thinking that saves them. Is Bruni steering us toward Gwen’s rendezvous with destiny or something more reality-based? She keeps readers guessing as the plot twists and turns.
Bruni writes dark passages and playful moments with equal aplomb. The world is her oyster.