Review: The Cormorant by Chuck Wendig

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A lot of writers try to do this. Write in a tumbling, stumbling, flood of images, sound, and sensations. Not just tell a story but make you hear it and feel it and damn near live it.  Very few succeed.

Hell, a lot of daredevils try to walk on a wire but only Philip Petit managed to make it between the Twin Towers–back when there were Twin Towers.

Chuck Wendig is a Philip Petit of novelists.: one of the very few who can pull off a flow of descriptions, obscenities, emotions, and imagery without suddenly making the reader stop and say “Hey, that didn’t work.” I know I can’t do it and I’m smart enough not to try. I swear there were only one–maybe two times when I was reading “The Cormorant” when I even noticed the individual words going by–where he’d lost the rhythm, He’s like a jazz drummer who just keeps riffing…it all comes tumbling out as if he was Jack Kerouac, cranked up on Benzedrine and writing “On the Road” on a single roll of paper without stopping from beginning to end.

Is it clear yet that I think he’s a really good writer?  Just checking.

OK, I haven’t read either of the first two books about Miriam Black: the anti-heroine heroine of “The Cormorant,” so you Wendig addicts will just have to bear with me. Miriam is a uber-Goth runaway who dresses in ripped black and sunglasses. She has lived on the street for years and is comfortable with the stealing, lying, cheating, and the casually-cruel people who surround her.  Miriam has a Gift/Curse–if she touches a person, she will instantly know all the details of their death. I gather that in the earlier books, she mostly used this to show up right after the Big Blowoff and rob the Dearly Departed.  Lately, she’s been trying out killing people to see if she can break the inexorable process of the future she’s forced to witness but in Cormorant, she is hired to meet this guy in Florida who wants to know how he kicks off and is willing to pay for it.

It’s weird but it’s a lot of money so off she goes. Everything around Miriam is either already broken or she breaks it–her cars are old junkers with busted air conditioning, the places she stays are dumps, the places she eats are diners.  She reaches the client deep in the Florida Keys and then … well, then the plot begins.

The plot is strong and weird and fits Miriam like a black leather glove with the fingers cut off. It turns and twists and dives–I sat up all night reading this damn book on my cell phone, for Pete’s sake. It’s well put together, nuanced, and in the end, satisfying–with no easy outs.

Now, what interested me about The Cormorant was that everything I’ve just written is completely true and yet, it’s only about half of what’s really going on. The writing is a scary, wild, obscene crash of sound and yet there are elements and overtones of Shakespeare and  Rimbaud and Dante hidden deep inside. Miriam Black is a solid taut block of arrogance, anger, and screaming rage–except that when you look back at what she’s actually done, you see a very different person. Someone who wants others to be happy, hates the death that washes around her, and never, ever stops fighting. (The descriptions of the muscular, desperate, physicality of her battles are worth the entire book alone). She isn’t a fake bad person nor a fake good person–she’s really both..

It’s the same with a great deal of the world she inhabits and, I suspect, with Wendig himself. Yes, it’s angry and obscene and burned and broken but it’s not flimsy or disappointing. There are good people hiding all around–they look like people you’d cross the street to avoid–but you’d have made a mistake. With Wendig, I suspect that he puts out an image of uncaring obscenity and brash idol-smashing but it’s like good modern artists. They need to learn how to paint a Vermeer or a Winslow Homer before they can throw it away and dribble paint like Jasper Johns.

OK, enough. Read his books. Read this book. It’s like going over a waterfall, you’ll be blinded in the foam, smashed against rocks, twisted and bent and changed and come out smiling and saying, “Hell, let’s do that again!”

On a personal note, The Cormorant starts in Philadelphia and travels through Florida to the Keys. In the 70s I did the same thing and one of the wonderful surprises of the book is that both places are the older, cooler, worn down places I remember from back then and not the soulless Disney-fied strip of condos and marinas that it’s become today. OK, perhaps it’s not real but it really is better.

I used to hitchhike down for Spring Break and pay $5 to camp on the grass at Fiesta Key and damn near wept when I showed up and it was a KOA–all nice and clean and wouldn’t THINK of having a scuzzy tent anywhere on the premises.  In the Keys, though, you can see how it was expensive and formal back in the 30s and 40s, and then sank into disreputable scruffiness in the 60s and 70s. The great thing is to realize that–in time–it will get scruffy and broken-down and become the hideout for people with no money who still want to sit by the ocean.  And another generation of hitch-hikers and novelists will discover it and love it.

(Disclosure: Geez, I hate being ethical. Wendig writes for Angry Robot–a lot–and I’m going to have my FIRST thriller published by Exhibit A, the red-headed stepchild of Angry Robot in May 2014.  On the other hand, I’ve never met him and I don’t owe him any money.  I think it all cancels out.)

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