Review: The Human Disguise by James O’Neal

The Human Disguise by James ONeal
The Human Disguise by James O'Neal

The Human Disguise
James O’Neal
Tor, 2009

The jacket discription of O’Neal’s debut novel The Human Disguise reads like it is supposed to be a post-apocalyptic noir story.  It had me really excited.  Needless to say I was a bit disappointed when the novel turned out be more of an action-thriller and I had radically adjust my expectations and try my hardest to enjoy the novel for what it was rather than what I hoped it to be.

America is a shell of herself, her borders closed, ravaged by terrorism, and threatened (along the rest of the world) by an increasingly aggressive Germany.  Amidst what remains of Florida, near a Miama declared as a quarantine zone for bioterror victims called growlers Tom Wilner, a former marine, is a member of the United Police Force, a peace keeping organization that does its best to enforce what little law remains in the area.  Wilner, while tailing his soon-to-be ex-wife into an area bar is quickly caught in a firefight and thrust straight into the middle of a conflict between two ancient families.  What ensues is flawed, but highly entertaining, action-thriller that while engrossing never seems to quite captialize on the rich world the O’Neal has created.

I had a lot of trouble starting the novel.  I found the language of its opening chapter a bit stilted, the dialogue stiff and rife with dreaded tags.  What should have been a raucus opening featuring a barroom firefight became a roadblock to my initial enjoyment of the novel.  However, as I read on these problems faded to the back (they never disappeared completely) as I was swept along in the wake of events.  In truth the characterization and dialogue remain the novel’s biggest weakness’s and serve only to obscure the rich and fascinating world O’Neal has created. As a result The Human Disguise is a novel I wanted to like more than I did.

Wilner, our protagonist is perhaps the most troubling character. On the one hand he is a upstanding guy, a morally righteous man dedicated to the law and willing to stand for something in a time when that seems to be less and less of a commodity. My main problem with Wilner is his somewhat proprietary attitude towards women that frequently jars with his self-professed moral attitudes. That aforementioned bar-fight occurs while he is more-or-less stalking his wife. There is a point in the novel where a cop-friend comments on his children’s nanny but even though “he doesn’t really want to say anything” he still lets it slip that he had managed to see her naked. To make matters worse every woman in the novel seems to through themselves at him including the take charge Homeland Security agent and yes, even the nanny. Even as he treats the capable female agent in a very patronizing manner she continues to fall for him. Wilner is a character that seems to be straight out of the 1950s and my main problem is I don’t know if that is a deliberate act or, if it was, what this characterization is trying to say.

Perhaps I’m really just troubled that even despite this I found Wilner a surprisingly likable character. Patronizing attitudes aside his take-charge cool under fire personality fits perfectly in the lost and shattered world of O’Neal’s future. But I think maybe that fit is a little too perfect. Wilner, with all his experiences and history, seems a character a bit too well-crafted and ends feeling more like a construct than a living breathing human being. The novel as a whole suffers from that same over-the-top vibe that often veers into the blatantly humorous. Homeland Security operates a branch in Orlando because the presence of Disney a huge boon to the struggling American economy and moral. Disney has taken over American education and has its own DNA labs. These are aspects obviously played for humor, or at least some levity, but their obviousness is at odds with the straight-face used for the rest of the novel’s over-the-top elements.

Despite my on-the-fence attitude throughout the novel I grew increasingly fascinated by O’Neal’s vision of our future. The roach infested radioactive ruins of New York City, the old west vibe of the Miami Quarantine Zone, the futuristic elements like DNA coded weapons and handheld energy weapons juxtaposed against the more conventional and familiar aspects of the modern era, even the constant distraction of the approaching alien Uralians all combine to create a vivid and fascinating world that I would love to see explored further. The Human Disguise operates more as a crime/action thriller wrapped in a science fiction package and works well as such. Readers who struggle with friends or family reluctant to delve into genre fiction, but never miss Dan Brown or James Patterson, might find The Human Disguise an excellent middle ground to entice them over for a quick dip in the genre pool. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more from O’Neal in the future and, flaws and all, genuinely look forward to returning to ravaged ruins of futuristic south Florida.

Note: In the midst of writing this review I found a review from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that revealed that Jame O’Neal is a pen name for crime writer James O. Born. Information that might of been handy beforehand!

One thought on “Review: The Human Disguise by James O’Neal

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