Shovel Ready: A Novel
Author/Publisher: Adam Sternbergh/Crown
Released date: January 14th, 2014
Grade: 2 out of 5 meatballs
Reviewed by: Pawl Schwartz
Shovel Ready is about a garbage man in a depopulated future where the rich plug into virtual realities to drop out of life. “The problem in this city used to be too many people. Now it’s not enough. And when only poor people use something, no one takes care of it.” Spademan, the garbage man, doesn’t collect trash anymore; instead he kills people for money — it’s not like there is anyone around to care.
The world and story itself are neo-noir, with clues being slowly put together throughout like a detective novel. Spademan is contracted by a religious cult leader to take out his runaway daughter, which is not a problem until he sees that said daughter is very pregnant. Spademan won’t kill kids. From here on, there is no difference between Spademan and an old trenchcoat detective because he has now taken a side, so the entire techno-religious-cult is out to kill him and the girl. Too bad Spademan’s only weapon is the blade from a box cutter. Too bad the story turns out to be as empty as the dystopia Spademan lives in.
What kept me going was Sternbergh’s writing style — quick and punchy, especially with his rapid conversations, but also deeply and originally descriptive and poetic, just not at the same time. He never lingers too long on a single scene either, just lobs the description like a single grenade and moves on. Lots of "fucks" thrown in for good measure, conversational and profane in a giddy way. The fact that it is written in present tense only sharpens Sternbergh’s wordhoard.
The writing in Shovel Ready, owing to the brevity of present tense actions, is crack on a page. For example: “Bar’s dark. Pilot comes back from the men’s room. Aviators look left. Right. Reflect emptiness. Walks back behind the bar. Steps over broken bottle. Over Sebastian. Shows his revolver in a shoulder holster. Stops at the sink. Washes his hands.” New information in every sentence, Shovel Ready only uses the words it needs, and my brain appreciated this and read along speedily. That being said, the dialogue and descriptions are what got me through to the end of this novel because everything else was quite stunted. The world never really comes to life; we are just told directly about it in the occasional ranty flashback chapter (show, don’t tell, little writers!) in a way that falls flat. I know the details of this future, but there aren’t enough, and the future is fairly inconsequential to the story anyway. Realizing that made me think Shovel Ready isn’t so much combining genres as it is using one as window dressing on a very, very simple noir story about a woman in trouble.
By the time I got to the end, I found out this was truer than I had expected. The story never goes outside of the one pregnant woman and the religious organization that wants her dead, which comes to a quick head in under 200 pages and then leaves us with a predictable twist at the end. Why the hell did they need to be in this incomplete future? Don’t act like you’ve bent genres when you've really just used one as a mask of makeup. I mean, Spademan being a garbageman never even comes in to play at all; it’s just a useless detail to make the character seem interesting and idiosyncratic.
Don’t be fooled by a hip-seeming premise and the promise of genre-hopping because here, they are truly cheap gimmicks. The only good thing between the covers of this book are lines like “Concrete blocks are the blind man’s stained glass;” otherwise, Shovel Ready is just a Trojan horse for a story we’ve all heard before.
Shovel Ready: A Novel