I have a problem here. I have long been a fan of Terrible Minds, the website/blog of Chuck Wendig. His blogs and books about writing are usually spot on and I have long recommended him to my writing students. Then I read this book.
While it’s not bad… it certainly doesn’t live up to the quality I’d have expected from Wendig. To begin with, it seems like he’s never heard a simile he doesn’t think should be used. Every other sentence is buttoned with “…like a….” something, which often has little bearing on the situation or scene at hand. Like describing furniture using weather terms (No, that’s not what he did, but I listened to the book so didn’t write down any of the multitude he did use).
Then there’s the story itself. Actually, two stories. This particular book is a composite of two novellas, Shotgun Gravy and Bait Dog, both of which feature protagonist Atlanta Burns a (maybe, we’re not sure) 17-year-old society reject who was a victim of sexual assault from her mother’s boyfriend (the result of which, she shot his testicles off). Of course, this legendary action, combined with her step in rescue of a geek being forced to eat dogshit makes her the go to gal for all the downtrodden and marginalized kids in school – kinda like a red-head Ricky Linderman.
Eventually, Atlanta tangles with unashamed neo-nazis and cartoon white supremacists, all leading up to, in the second half of the book, ruining a low-level dog fighting ring – mostly in the name of at first protecting, and then avenging, a gay kid she befriends. And this is where my problems come in. The writing itself is good. Wendig certainly drags you into his setting, no matter how dark that may be. So, like Tana French, whose sentences are top-notch but whose endings suck like scylla, Wendig lost me completely with his seemingly sloppy characterization and then, with violence so blatant and unnecessary I almost stopped reading the book.
First, the characters. No one feels really developed beyond one or two “points” and certainly no one learns anything. Atlanta herself makes the same mistake not twice, but three separate times when trying to come up with a plan of attack. Three times she has a plan “so simple it can’t fail” and it fails. And anyone reading it, from grown-ups to the YA of the intended audience, can see how it’s going to fail from a mile off. The racists are all cardboard cutouts who hang Hitler themed novelty license plates on their garage wall and spout white pride slogans straight off the pamphlet. All of the adults in the book, with the possible exception of the drug dealer and maybe a cop who plays such a small, ineffective role as to be negligible, are useless losers. If they’re not the aforementioned racists, then they are immature, irresponsible or, winning some sort of character design lottery, a combination of all three.
Then there’s the dogs. Yes, the second part, the one coming from Bait Dog, is centered around an illegal dog fighting ring and yes, is brutal and descriptive… as it rightly should be. Where I had the problem, though, was after one of the dogs decides not to fight and adopt Atlanta (and becoming instantly trained to follow her commands and protect her at any cost for no apparent reason whatsoever) is purposefully injured by one of the bad guys (one whom we actually don’t meet until way too late in the book, but that’s okay, I can live with that) in order to “prove he can get to Atlanta.” And it comes from no logical place within the narrative other than Wendig wants to show this guy is EVIL. It’s strictly a plot device and not a very effective one at that.
Then it’s followed by the severely injured dog being taken to a vet (now, spoilers here, the dog is injured IN a police station and could very easily be considered evidence or, in this fantastic world of instantly obedient animals, a material witness) where Atlanta is told the dog will lose an eye and might have brain damage. The vet then suggests putting the dog down. NOT because of the severity of the damage or the quality of the dog’s future life, but based solely on the fact that the surgery will be expensive and she, not knowing anything other than the whole police thing mentioned above, thinks Atlanta won’t be able to pay for it.
Yeah. Put the dog down because you won’t be able to pay me for my services. This character instantly became the most evil person in the whole book for me. And again… it happens for NO REASON. It doesn’t change the plot, it doesn’t affect the outcome, nothing. It just strikes me that Wendig is in love with his reputation for “being hard and not pulling punches” that having a walk-on character be more repellent than the Hitler Youth strikes his “keeping it real” fancy.
So, yes, I’ll still read his blog. I might even give his books another try. But a lot of goodwill has been lost. No matter how talented the writer, if it’s not in service to strong, three-dimensional characters and solid story telling, so what?