Friday, May 29, 2009

Jack Reacher, surrogate father

Lee Child’s latest detective novel was published last week. At least 50 have sold at Bookstore C, and our store is the chain’s smallest in the region. I was eager to read it myself but we’d sell out each day before I could grab one to borrow. In the meantime, I discussed the book with customers as I rang up the sales.

Here are sample customer comments:
“Jack Reacher is my dream man!”
“My daughter says Jack Reacher is her surrogate father.”
“I got a first printing, first edition of the first Reacher book just by accident and ever since then I’ve made sure to get a first first. I love the guy.”
“Jack Reacher is the coolest hero going.”
“I love Jack Reacher.”

Well, Reacher is a unique character, I grant you. He’s a military brat and grew up mostly on American bases overseas (his mother was a Frenchwoman his dad met on an early posting). Reacher had one brother, now dead. Reacher went into the service, enjoyed weaponry, and was a military policeman, but was downsized with full retiree benefits after the Cold War ended. Here’s where it gets weird: Reacher has no fixed abode and owns nothing but the clothes on his back.

So our hero: speaks fluent French and has a working knowledge of several other languages. Knows weapons well, even loves certain ones, but owns none. Is smart and well educated, with a trackable past, an income, and ongoing medical benefits. No wife, no ex-wife; no children; no parents, no siblings; no profession or credentialing or ambition or investments; no house, apartment, furniture, entertainment system or passion for Coltrane, books, garden, lawn, church or temple, neighbors, car or other vehicle, dietary fads, interest in cooking complete with recipes, or collection of arcana. Whatever I’ve left out he doesn’t have anyway.

Something I like about Child’s writing of Reacher is that there are no dei ex machina. Unlike Nancy Drew, he didn’t just take a course in scuba diving — he always knew just as much about diving as he needs to for the moment, and it’s marginally more than you and I know. Unlike the unbearable Cornwell’s unspeakable Kay Scarpetta, there is no niece Lucy in her helicopter with the latest in spook gear. Unlike Lincoln Child (no kin to Lee that I know of), Katherine Howe, or a dozen others, no mysterious and inexplicable “force” that appears toward the end and changes the whole equation. If Reacher needs another garment, he gets it at Wal*Mart, an army-navy store, or Goodwill. If he needs something more up-to-date, there’s a Radio Shack or place that sells batteries nearby, wherever you are.

What Reacher does have is: a decent education, a somewhat-but-not-too heroic past, a family upbringing, discipline, honor, and a reputation. People never forget him. In every book he meets a smart, clean, woman-who-asks-no-questions and they have very pleasant (undescribed) sexual interaction; she leaves smiling and so does he. Like Dickens, Child wraps up every plot device tidily. Each piece of equipment that attached itself to Reacher during the book — someone’s leather jacket on a cool day, that Glock he likes — is back in the hands of its owner or otherwise specifically disposed of. If he’s been in trouble with the authorities in the course of the book, he will have embarrassed them enough that they’re just willing to forget him. In the last chapter or two, he will have found a place to shower and shave and change into freshly bought cheap clothes, dumping the dirty ones. You know he’s going to hit the road. And the book ends there.

Child’s prose is brisk or he has the same good editor book after book. I admire his construct. It’s simple and clean. No extraneous characters to follow (no Henry Pitts and his brother William and Rosie the Hungarian restaurateur; no Italian mother who died too young leaving behind a love of opera and some good crystal; no baby Michael who was killed falling out of the crib). No sidekicks — no Doctor Watson and his wandering wound from a jezrail bullet, no Hawk talkin’ ghetto, no ditzy rich mother-in-law Laurel, no drunken pussy-whipped Clete. Just Jack Reacher.

The only loose end is outside the book. What do we think about a young woman who says that Reacher is her “surrogate father”? The books don’t leave me wondering about anything, but that response sure does.

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