(Winston-Salem, NC: Mastodon Publishing, 2018)
In the Boston of Ron MacLean’s new novel, Headlong, a janitor’s strike lights the fuse that sets off rallies, protests, and political unrest. These events come to a boil during a heatwave, suggesting we are in store for an imminently combustible mystery.
Yet, in spite of genre cues, such as shadowy characters and outbursts of violence on both small and large scales, Headlong is an oddball of a mystery, an idiosyncratic slow burn, insomuch as it eschews gumshoes and femme fatales in favor of traipsing along with a heady journalist, Nick Young, through coffee shop convos, old folks’ homes, and sweaty jogs. In fact, this reads like noir sans detective, with a low body count, and more social activists than hard-boiled rogues. All of which is to say, Headlong functions as a human drama by working within the trappings of detective fiction at a minimalist’s scale.
That said, MacLean leans into tropes when effective, starting with the protagonist sharing his noir predecessors’ bristly relationship with the past.
Nick Young is Boston’s prodigal spawn, both figuratively as he returns to Bean Town devoid of purpose after a hiatus in Hollywood, and literally, as signaled by the novel’s succinct opener: “I came home to bury my father, but he wouldn’t die.” We’re introduced to a man convinced he’d sloughed away an emotionally distant father and a career in journalism, only to find himself at a financial and personal rock bottom, with no choice but to attend to his estranged father and his own lost sense of purpose.
Adding to Nick’s angst is a bevy of Sirens, ex-girlfriends reaching from the past, and later, in the form of a shadowy temptress and a fiery activist leader haunting his present. But it is a teen-aged boy, Bo, who drags Nick deeper into the story of Boston’s janitor protests and provides a foil for us understanding Nick’s true crisis, that of his own identity.
Bo is a surrogate son to Nick, child of one of those exes, and the person to whom Nick, though twenty years his senior, relates most. It is with Bo that Nick feels most comfortable, whether they’re chatting about socialism at coffee shops or thrashing at punk shows. A trait signaled by his last name, Nick Young’s arrested development is also introduced in this relationship, then manifest further by Nick’s inability or lack of desire to engage with the broader world, from renewing his career, to working out his dad’s medical issues, to having a meaningful dialogue with women his own age. Bo’s activism and subsequent imperilment are also key to Nick’s involvement in the plot’s biggest set-piece, the janitor strike and its constellation of riotous violence and murderous subterfuge.
Once a heralded investigative journalist, Nick Young’s initial interest in the janitor strike is to keep Bo from endangering himself, but Nick is quickly dragged deeper into the morass by ghosts of yore, a cohort which includes everyone from a slimy CEO, to grass-roots journos of Nick’s heyday. Yet these monumental events are where the story is arguably least interesting. Janitor strikes. Revolution. Bringing down corporations. The 99 percent. Just because an event is important doesn’t make it interesting. Though it’s a relief to have drama generated by something less predictable (in terms of genre) than a string of unsolvable murders (there are just a couple), it’s a tough task for anyone, even of MacLean’s writing ability, to squeeze excitement from agitated janitors.
However, there’s more than enough meat in MacLean’s tale to satisfy, particularly the leanness of prose and fleshy characters. Best of all, we have Nick Young’s flawed persona; he’s lecherous at times, petty, childish, and these traits both compel and make his struggle against inner demons feel earned, particularly as they relate to his endangered mentee, Bo. Not only that, but by planting a believable protagonist in a lived-in Boston and by keeping the past as the true antagonist of the story, Headlong does something that detective novels often fumble; it sheds its tropes by the last page, offering instead a coda both heartfelt and cathartic.
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Kirk Sever’s writing has appeared in Colorado Review, Unbroken Journal, Rain Taxi, Bird’s Thumb, and elsewhere. Additionally, Kirk’s work has earned him runner-up status in both the Academy of American Poets George M. Dillon Memorial Aware and the Northridge Fiction Award. He currently teaches writing at California State University at Northridge.