Shovel Ready, the first novel by journalist Adam Sternbergh, is the kind of thriller that makes you want to grab on to someone’s hand. Anyone’s hand, really. The novel doesn’t traffic in the kind of tingly spookiness alleviated by the protective presence of someone you love. It’s more of an existentially unsettling book. Set in a near-future Manhattan, with a bombed-out, radioactive Times Square at its core, Shovel Ready seethes with characters out to maim or off one another.
Maybe it’s due to the fact that they’re hit men (the ones who aren’t assassins are pretty good at killing too), but Shovel Ready, despite an undercurrent of tenderness and gallows humor, is a grim read. It makes you search for a smile from a stranger because you want to feel comforted, after finishing the book, that smiles can exist between people who don’t know one another.
Shovel Ready is also unrelentingly entertaining (which may be one reason Warner Bros. bought the film rights very soon after Crown decided to publish the book; Denzel Washington is attached to star). Spademan, the narrator, was a garbage collector before the bombs. Now, he’s a hired gun asked to kill the daughter of America’s most famous evangelist. When he meets her, he has to decide whether to send her to her grave or protect her from the vicious person who hired Spademan to do her in.
There is plenty of life left in the post-apocalyptic novel, Sternbergh says, despite what has by now been a long train of dystopias coming down the track. (He’s right: We put Chang-rae Lee on the cover of the Jan. 1 issue for his dystopian novel On Such a Full Sea, and the New York Times Book Review put its review of that book on the front page of its Jan. 5 issue.)
Sternbergh is the culture editor at the New York Times Magazine, having edited and written at New York before joining the Times. When I met with him recently, we talked about blurring the lines between “literary” novels and “genre” books. He remembered reading Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 thriller No Country for Old Men, which the Coen brothers adapted. The critical reception of the book was “as if a virtuoso violinist had taken a day off to go play fiddle at the square dance,” he recalled, as if a revered writer had taken a “time out” to play in the genre sandbox.
Sternbergh’s reaction was different. For him, it was “kind of like a bonus” to have McCarthy writing a thriller. “I’m a guy who really likes to square dance.” Sternbergh wrote a previous novel that was a satire of New York in the boom days of the early 2000’s, but his writing didn’t interest him, so he shelved it. With Shovel Ready, he was “shamelessly committed” to entertaining himself and his reader. The distinction between what is literary and what’s not interests him and book critics, he said, but readers care less about those demarcations. “As someone working in the cultural-analytical industrial complex, I think it was easy for me to lose touch with that reader myself,” he said. Writing Shovel Ready, “I wanted to get back in touch with that.”
Claiborne Smith is the editor in chief of Kirkus Reviews.