Sunday, May 11, 2014

Niketown by Vern

Niketown by Vern (5/5)

The pseudonymously named Vern, author of Niketown, is perhaps best known for his book Seagalogy, an extensive analysis of the filmography of Stephen Seagal.  It’s an impressive work of popular film criticism that offers up a robust taxonomy of the themes and reoccurring motifs in the work of Stephen Segal.  In Niketown, Vern’s first novel, he uses his extensive knowledge of narrative tropes in order to both fulfill audience expectations and to continually challenge them.  Although it’s a relatively slim novel, Niketown is brimming with ideas, and it’s an absolute joy to see an author take his readers into new and unexpected places by pushing at the limits of genre fiction.

Niketown follows ex-con Carter Chase as he is recently released from prison for a botched robbery of the Nike superstore known as Niketown.  Chase has to deal with an onslaught of problems as he enters the world outside of his jail cell.  Both of his parents have passed away—his father years ago from medical problems and his mother shortly before his release due to an unexpected accident.  He also has to decide whether or not he wants to walk away from the Niketown job completely or to turn around and get revenge on his partners who betrayed him.  And if this weren’t enough, Chase discovers that his brother has mysteriously gone missing. 

Perhaps the novel’s cleverest conceit is how it deals with Chase’s attempts to reenter “polite society” after being locked up.  Because he has spent years in prison, Chase’s release acts a sort of time warp.  He’s not used to the way in which people seem wholly consumed by their cell phones or the changing fashion trends or the idea that people actually refer to themselves as “foodies.”  What’s even worse, the world he finds himself in has been taken over by advertising.  The Pepsi Company has even taken out an advertisement on the grave of Chase’s mother.  Chase appears to have a better sense of decorum and values than just about everyone he encounters.

As a character, Chase is a wonderful creation.  He’s someone who has messed up in life.  Before being shipped off to jail, he spent his time occasionally pulling off haphazard robberies, but he knew what he was doing was wrong right up until he was locked up for stealing from Niketown.  (When taking on the Niketown job, Chase comforts himself with the knowledge that at least he’s stealing from a faceless corporation and not some mom and pop joint.)  He’s someone who wishes to atone, but at the same time he looks at the world around him and finds that there’s nothing sacred anymore.  The old rules of what’s acceptable in society have shifted over time, and while Chase’s shock at where we as a culture have arrived may in part be a result of his time tucked away in jail, much of it has to do with an unyielding sense of right and wrong, even if he isn’t always capable of following his own moral compass.  In one particular scene that stands out, Chase goes online to check in on old friends and acquaintances from high school, and he finds himself both jealous and disgusted by the bland, yuppie lives they’ve created for themselves.  Chase is a man fighting against time, both on a personal and a larger cultural level.

Vern sets up the novel as both a mystery and a story of revenge, and while these elements form the spine of the narrative, Vern is confident enough as a writer to take us down several detours along the way.  In an interview, Vern says his fiction was inspired by Richard Stark’s Parker novels, George V. Higgins’s Friends of Eddie Coyle and the writings of Elmore Leonard.  You can definitely see the influence of these authors on Vern’s writing style.  One of my favorite moments in the book, the actual set up and execution of the Niketown robbery, reminds me of Leonard’s cast of crooks who aren’t stupid, exactly, but they are just a little dumb.  But to Vern’s credit, he’s never fully beholden to these authors.  He has fashioned a world that is familiar and yet still one step removed from ours, and, likewise, he is working in genres that have certain expectations attached to them, but he never feels obliged to fulfill those expectations.  Vern has taken the crime fiction story and infused it with satire and pathos in equal measure, which is quite an accomplishment for a first novel. 

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