August 30, 2018
(++++) NO DEARTH OF DEATH
Hollywood Dead: A Sandman Slim Novel. By Richard Kadrey. Harper Voyager. $26.99.
The thing about Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim novels – one thing, anyway – is that they redefine the notion of “collateral damage.” In these books, everything is collateral, and nearly everything is damaged, and that includes James Stark (aka Sandman Slim) himself. The physical damage, and there is a lot of it, is almost beside the point: there is a ceaseless drumbeat of barely repressed violence throughout the books, of which Hollywood Dead is the tenth. And then the repression breaks down, the violence breaks through, and lo and behold, you are a page or so further ahead and the body count has mounted significantly.
The interesting thing is that the nearly unending dull roar – okay, sometimes explosively loud roar – of violence takes place in settings whose descriptions, although wholly incidental to the plot, are a major pleasure of the story. Take the extended drive to which blindfolded first-person narrator Stark is subjected early in Hollywood Dead, which lasts “well over an hour. In most towns that would mean we’re halfway to Argentina, but in L.A. it means we could be circling the block looking for parking.” That is brilliant, throwaway scene-setting, part of the unending valentine to Los Angeles that the Sandman Slim books are – provided you understand that the heart in this valentine is extremely bloody and was ripped from a still-living body, as in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. And that is an apt thought, because Stark’s constant movie references are an integral part of the narrative and another way in which Kadrey sets scenes and limns personalities.
Calling the books first-person narratives is actually a bit misleading, because Stark is not quite a person: he is half-angel, and that is not a good thing. It almost got him killed multiple times and did get him killed nearly a year before the start of Hollywood Dead, at the end of the series’ ninth book, The Kill Society. Kadrey is too good a writer to let a character such as Sandman Slim go – Stark is one of the great creations in contemporary supernatural noir literature, although admittedly “literature” needs to be definitionally stretched a bit to encompass the Sandman Slim books. So Kadrey has him brought back by a necromancer and presented with an offer he cannot refuse, thus creating the underlying plot of Hollywood Dead. The offer comes from a group of hyper-rich, hyper-vicious Illuminati collectively known as Wormwood, a group so horrendous that one of Stark’s determinations in the series has been to destroy every last member, which he does quite efficiently at one point – but unfortunately only in Hell, which he gets to visit now and then to refresh his store of ultra-violence and his memories of the days when he was Lucifer. Wormwood is still very much alive and kicking (and stomping, shooting, exploding, etc.) on Earth, where it has emulated its namesake the worm’s ability to reproduce through division: it has split in two, and what Stark has been brought back to do is to prevent Wormwood II from annihilating Wormwood I and, by the way, most of humanity.
Stark has little patience for his employers, knowing they will definitely betray him rather than carry out their part of the bargain by restoring his body for real: the necromancer has reanimated him, but only temporarily, and without further intervention, he will soon die for good and forever (yeah, right, as if Kadrey would allow that). Anyway, another of the marvelous descriptive passages with which Kadrey’s books abound provides a small sample of Stark’s feelings about Wormwood aspirants – not actual Wormwood members, whom he hates far, far, far more intensely, but the sorts of people who would like nothing better than to become Wormwood members if they had any idea of the organization’s existence. Stark talks about neighborhoods filled with “walled compounds where good, upstanding American families debate whether their artisanally raised mutts deserve domestic or imported champagne with their prime rib kibble,” then reminds himself that these “mere paupers with millions of dollars” are far less awful than those living elsewhere in the rich precincts of L.A., in “gated Xanadus where the toilets are gold and the trash doesn’t end up in landfills but gets a gentle yacht journey out to the open sea, where it receives a Viking funeral, complete with human sacrifice.” Stark is remarkably poetic for a vicious, amoral, sort-of-immortal mass murderer.
The point, of course, is that Stark is not only a vicious, amoral, sort-of-immortal mass murderer. The real conflict in Hollywood Dead is not between Stark and Wormwood – that is old news and is sure to play out in suitably grisly and convoluted fashion – but between reanimated Stark and his pre-death self. After all, Stark was dead for nearly 12 months, and all his friends – yes, he does have them, and they keep him as grounded as it is possible to stabilize someone like Sandman Slim – have moved on in their lives. And Stark desperately wants to re-connect with them and with his former self, as becomes increasingly clear as Hollywood Dead lurches ahead in what passes for narrative progress. But Stark knows that if he does not fulfill his mission for Wormwood, or if he does fulfill it without figuring out just how Wormwood intends to betray him, his temporary body will be gone and he will be dead again and out of his friends’ lives even more permanently than he was when he died before. So he holds back from re-engaging – until it turns out that he needs help, both from some characters newly introduced in this book and from some returnees from earlier in the series, in order to accomplish his goals.
Stark is, in a sense, always at the mercy of events that force him into uncomfortable situations, where the minor discomforts of being shot, beaten, knifed, torn apart, blown up, etc., pale before the major ones of watching harm come to those he cares about. Always presented superficially as a super-macho, over-the-top violence purveyor, Stark is actually just another protagonist tossed hither and thither by events, doing his best to get through the day while preserving his body (or what is left of it) and his soul (or what is left of that). The fact that Stark is so completely unaware of what could be described as his better nature is one thing that makes his narration of his misbegotten adventures so compulsively readable. The fact that those adventures are so outré and take place in such bizarre locales is another thing. The fact that Kadrey is a brilliant scene-setter, apparently offhandedly and almost despite himself, is yet another. Hollywood Dead and the other Sandman Slim books are easily dismissible as overextended punk cinematic noir only by people who fail to see just how cleverly and intelligently Kadrey has created Stark’s universe and the constellations of evil, violence, lust and faintly twinkling beauty within it. Darn it, Kadrey is good. And so, almost incidentally and inadvertently, is Sandman Slim.