There aren’t many authors I will buy, and read, sight unseen. Robert McCammon is one of the very few, so when it’s announced he’s publishing a new book, of course I’m interested. But being broke, I can only afford so many books (I’d probably be a lot better off financially if I didn’t buy as many books, but what kind of life is that, I ask?), so I was looking forward to having to wait until it was published to pre-order it. That means, for the second time in nearly two decades, I’ve missed out on a pre-order of a limited edition of a McCammon (no surprise, the other was Swan Song). Oh well, there’s always eBay. Fortunately, I entered into a few contests Hunter Goatley ran through the official Robert McCammon mailing group and the official Robert McCammon twitter, and won not only an audio book for The Listener, but also Mystery Walk and Usher’s Passing.
You get it: I’m a fan. So, what about The Listener? Is it any good? Does it justify my blind faith? Yes.
So what’s it about?
The year is 1934, the Great Depression is entering its fifth year. John Dillinger and Bonnie & Clyde are all dead, and Bruno Richard Hauptmann is still a free man two years after the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. In Louisiana, John Partner, a confidence trickster claiming to be “President of the Holy Bible Partner Company in Houston” drifts from town to town, looking at the obituaries of the recently deceased, and selling the families Golden Edition Bibles for five dollars. Times are tough, and a man has eat, even if someone else has to go without. McCammon paints a sympathetic portrait of a man who is, at best, an asshole, but if you overlook the fact he swindles old ladies out of money, he might be okay to grab a beer with.
Then the rug is pulled from beneath the reader. By the end of the first chapter, Partlow is most definitively painted as the villain of the novel. With a single act, he is no longer a sympathetic character, but he is no less interesting. A sudden flash of anger, which turns turn him into a monster worse than Michael Vick, is in the next chapter with him regretting the action. Not because of the act itself, but because we’re given ample reason to want to see him fail in a few short paragraphs. And when he hooks up with Ginger LaFrance, the novel’s secondary antagonist, and concoct a scheme to kidnap some children, our only hope is that both of them meet a similar fate as each real life villain above.
It isn’t until chapter 7, a full quarter of the way into book, that we are introduced to the protagonist, Curtis Mayhew, a Red Cap for the local train station. He is the clichéd Magical Negro, but McCammon is more than competent in crafting a memorable character. Curtis has the gift of telepathy, something he shares with only a handful of others, whom he calls Listeners. And it is his gift which gives him an advantage over the kidnappers when they take a fellow Listener and her brother.
Both John Partner and Curtis Mayhew feel real, as do all of the secondary characters. When we are inside of the mind of Partner, we can almost feel sorry for him; while we are inside the mind of Curtis, we feel his anxiety as he worries about someone he’s never met. She’s only been a voice in his mind, but they’ve talked before, and he considers her a friend.
McCammon doesn’t shy away from topics of race and segregation, but he doesn’t confront them, either. They are stated as fact, and only approached again when the narrative deems it necessary. This is a strict thriller from start to finish, with no time for in-depth social commentary.
Come back next week, when I’ll have either a review of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, or a review of Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison (I’ll still do both, but it will all depend on if I finish Woolf in time which comes first).
To purchase The Listener, follow this link.