Jack Wakes Up
Three Rivers Press, 2009
First Line: Jack Palms walks into a diner just south of Japantown, the one where he is supposed to me Ralph.
Continuing my little hard-boiled project this week makes for a bit of a departure as I step away from the detective field into the straight up crime thriller. (I’ll return to detective fiction with my subsequent reads since I’ve decided I want to attempt a novel for each decade since I have the 40s/50s well covered.) Like his contemporaries Scott Sigler and J. C. Hutchins (both contribute reviews on the book’s Amazon page) Seth Hardwood comes from the growing numbers of “podcast writers” that are, if not prevalent, at least a rising trend in the current fiction market (much like the Inklings often receive scholarly attention now I suspect that years down the road there will be some much deserved attention given to the collaborative and promotional power of the internet writing community). In Jack Wakes Up Harwood delivers a high octane crime thriller with a charismatic main character.
Jack Palms (which, by the way, is a fantastic name) was an actor who delivered one successful action movie before being accused of hitting his wife. The subsequent legal trouble and media attention killed his career but spurred him to make radical life changes that got him out of a toxic relationship and helped him kick a drug habit. Now, living in the San Francisco, Jack’s sleazy friend Ralph has a serious deal going down with some visiting Czechs and needs Jack’s help. Needless to say things don’t go entirely as planned. While the plot of a drug deal gone bad with a lone man more-or-less left to pick up the pieces isn’t necessarily a new idea it is the elements that Harwood pulls together that make Jack Wakes Up worth taking a look at.
Those elements are Harwood’s ability to create interesting characters and his sense of location. I haven’t ever actually been to San Francisco, where the novel is set, but after reading Jack Wakes Up I almost feel like I have. It isn’t even the more well-known locales that foster that sensation (as far as I can remember the Transamerica Pyramid is the only one mentioned) but rather the smaller more local locales that give the setting the ring of truth. The museum on the docks where Jack meets the Brazilian drug dealer full of antique arcade (in the oldest meaning of the word) machines, the diner in the opening pages, and the restaurant where Jack first meets Junius all work to create a very distinct and intimate landscape that provides an well textured canvas on which the action is painted.
In terms of characters Jack himself is a fascinating creation. An actor using what little know notoriety he has left to gain access to places other people don’t, employing his acting skills to stay neck and neck with drug runners and thugs, and operating in a world full of drugs and alcohol while remaining one hundred percent sober. While he isn’t afraid to get physical and he doesn’t run when the shit hits the fan and the bullets start to fly Jack also relies on intelligence and, more frequently, charisma to get him through tough spots. All these traits combine to create a unique and fascinating protagonist who, even if he isn’t on the right side of the law, is both easy to sympathize with and a pleasure to root for. Of course Jack Wakes Up wouldn’t be complete with a colorful cast of secondary characters and Harwood delivers those in spades. Ralph, Junius, the Czechs, Tommy, and everyone else all manage to bring something to the equation if not with who they are then, at the very least, with how they are written. While some characters, like the Czechs and Junius, exhibit characterization the falls into established archetypes (occasionally stereotypes) they never feel tired or played out. The crispness of the dialogue and the frenetic action transcends this; lending a degree of freshness to characters that might otherwise have been tired. Of course you also have characters like Joe Buddha who is quirky, entertaining, and wholly original. Even the characters that might be run-of-the-mill typically have a nice little touch that sets them apart.
Jack Wakes Up is a thrill-a-minute crime novel. It isn’t perfect, but it is the very definition of fun. Buried beneath the coke, gangsters, crooked cops, car chases, and gunfire is a rather engrossing story about a man’s struggle to make ends meet by any means necessary and finding life in the process. It is a bit of a curious contradiction that Jack cooks up for himself. As a man who is a testament to how drugs can ruin someone’s life that he winds up helping purchase a large quantity for others is a bit a strange choice and, while it is a certainly not dealt with in this novel, a decision whose moral complexities I’d like to see explored in the future. Regardless this was a great read and I’ll be looking for more by Harwood in the future. If you’re interested you can check out a sample of the book or listen to the audio version over on Harwood’s website.