August 20, 2020


Ballistic Kiss: A Sandman Slim Novel. By Richard Kadrey. Harper Voyager. $28.99.

     There is some really awful news regarding Richard Kadrey’s latest Sandman Slim book. No, it is not the continuing war between rival factions of angels with highly discordant views of Heaven. No, it is not the sudden infestation of particularly violent ghosts. No, it is not even the unsolved murder of a small-caliber actor and the possible involvement in some way of a rogue angel who was last seen at an old-time porn palace.

     What is awful is that the Sandman Slim series is nearing its end. This is a pending event every bit as apocalyptic as the notion that God (Mr. Muninn in these books) may soon decide to surrender Heaven to those favoring the “priggish wonderland” notion of an afterlife, complete with exactly zero human souls. A world, our world, without Sandman Slim novels is no better than – well, a priggish wonderland.

     There have so far been 11½ of these vastly over-the-top books, for which the term “urban noir” might have been invented except for the fact that it is wholly inadequate to describe what Kadrey has wrought: Sandman Slim, Kill the Dead, Aloha from Hell, Devil in the Dollhouse (that’s the half book, a novelette that is too short to be called a full-fledged novel), Devil Said Bang, Kill City Blues, The Getaway God, Killing Pretty, The Perdition Score, The Kill Society, Hollywood Dead, and now Ballistic Kiss. There is scheduled to be just one more, unless the forces of evil and darkness (those are the good guys) conspire to extend the series or loop it back onto itself in some sort of Möbius strip of causality. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty good idea.

     At this late point in the sequence, it would take far too long to explain what everything is about. Kadrey can only make passing references to what has already happened, so those already familiar with the lives and deaths and depredations of Sandman Slim can remember at least some of the background needed for the latest entry. Certainly Ballistic Kiss is not the place to encounter Kadrey’s outré but oddly explicable Los Angeles for the first time. One typical passing reference, relating to a giant and literally Hell-spawned motorcycle, reads, “I picked it up when I was playing Lucifer and running Hell. One hundred days of weirdness I never want to repeat in this life or any other.” The background packed into those two sentences is enough to fill a couple of books – which, in fact, it did. But Kadrey has neither time nor inclination to delve into the past, since James Stark (aka Sandman Slim) has no such desire himself, and he, after all, is the narrator of Ballistic Kiss and its predecessors.

     What Kadrey does have an appetite for, aside from the usual mayhem and destruction and paranormal messes that Stark needs to clean up, frequently after he creates them (“I will beat a lion to death with a shark if it tries to take a bite out of me”), are passing references and descriptive passages that are not germane to the narrative but that give it a character quite unmatched in whatever genre this is. For example, early in Ballistic Kiss, Stark freaks out when he has to do everyday-for-most-of-us, routine things, such as going to a supermarket. He is so shaken by the experience that he just has to get out-and-about to somewhere and do something more in keeping with his usual predilections. However, there are (for the moment) no hellbeasts or other forms of ultra-viciousness around for him to handle, and this creates what passes for introspection in Stark: “I’m too restless to go home and face the tarragon.” That is the sort of typical throwaway line that Kadrey wields expertly to get readers more deeply involved in the Sandman Slim ethos than they would be if the books merely contained a mixture of diabolical and angelic viciousness and explosive revelations plus, from time to time, explosive explosions.

     Not that those are lacking. For example: “There are a lot of different kinds of ghosts. Some are hard to tell from regular people until they pull their heads off or vomit maggots all over you. If those things happen you know you’re dealing with a ghost – or possibly a parole officer.”

     In fact, Ballistic Kiss lacks for none of the usual Sandman Slim drama: Kadrey’s expertise at pacing is virtuosic, and his trademark mixture of worlds-weary (yes, worlds-weary, not merely world-weary) cynicism with rather endearing absurdist humor slanted toward films and the Hollywood life is everywhere in evidence. So is some pretty neat character development, much of it involving Stark’s former lover, Candy, who moved on during the year in which Stark was most recently dead (see previous books), and his new romance with Janet, a member of a cult that deliberately seeks out near-death adventures (which Janet does when not working in the donut shop where Stark once rescued her – see, yes, previous books). With the possible destruction of Heaven or, worse, Los Angeles hanging in the balance, with warring angels and murderous ghosts and misfiring magic, and with Stark having no trouble accepting Janet as non-binary but having considerable difficulty figuring out which pronouns to use, Ballistic Kiss moves the Sandman Slim sequence another big step along a road that fans will surely wish would go on and on and on – but one that, unfortunately, is supposed to dead-end (hopefully not forever-dead-end) a mere single book in the not-too-distant future.

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