Written by: James Keen
‘Something isn’t right.’ -Blake Crouch, Pines.
There are some novels that require a modicum of restraint on the part of the reviewer when it comes to critiquing them so as to avoid ruining an audience’s enjoyment. For example, it’s difficult to sum up Ken Kesey’s brilliant ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ without hinting at that novel’s denouement. The same is true for films such as Adrian Lynne’s stylistic but flawed adaptation of Bruce Joel Ruben’s screenplay for ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, Shyamalan’s ‘Sixth Sense’ and even Alex Proyas’ labyrinthine ‘Dark City’, all of which are dangerously prone to neat, mortifyingly brutal summations for lazy reviewers that can do nothing but detract from the works as a whole for the unaware viewer or reader.
This is of course a review of a work of literature and I’m aware that in the opening paragraph I’ve listed more than a couple of examples of cinema fare to underscore a point of view but it’s an observation that I feel is valid and one I’ll return to later for entirely different reasons.
Crouch begins his novel with a couple of quotes, one of which is from Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch 22’ which sets up the tone, preparing the reader for the ‘suspicious’ nature of what is to follow. The protagonist in Crouch’s ‘Pines’ is portrayed at the outset as a man very much out of sorts. He can’t remember his name, has no id, no wallet on him and hasn’t a clue as to how he has awoken, injured, next to a river in broad daylight . The opening works quickly to give you a sense of the character’s confusion while neatly describing the town he finds himself in; Wayward Pines. Crouch writes of the place ‘…at most a mile across, and it sat in the middle of an amphitheater of stone, enclosed by cliff walls rising several thousand feet on every side and composed of red-banded rock.’. As we follow our mystery surrogate through the small idyllic setting of the community with its ‘Victorian’ housing it becomes increasingly clear that, to some extent Crouch’s ‘everyman’ has something in common with a certain Frank L. Baum created adventurer; one who similarly found herself baffled and persecuted by her unfamiliar surroundings.
The brisk pace of the book is broken up by flashbacks of our hero, who, it appears remembers being caught up in a particularly harrowing episode during an offensive attack by U.S. Forces on an Al Qaeda group in Iraq. As our intrepid stranger slowly uncovers the truth about his own identity and his creepily realized surroundings- the area appears to have been designed as a disturbingly faithful homage to a Norman Rockwell-style milieu – Crouch sets about crafting a series of increasingly horrifying and disorienting events that propel the reader to the revelatory finish.
While Crouch’s book sports a bracing narrative, it’s hamstrung by plot devices that are all too familiar to those with even a cursory knowledge of the source ideas he’s evidently enamoured of. And this is where this review comes – almost – full circle. Some of the text reads very much like an embellished screenplay and suitably enough many of the ideas Crouch is playing with here have much more to do with his adoration of the visual pop-culture medium than the literary; in particular television and film.
However, it’s Blake Crouch’s coda that proves to be the novel’s saving grace, though his conclusion is one that is mitigated somewhat by the preceding chapters with his reliance on intermittently threadbare prose, confused character motivation and repetitive diction. The instances of characters repeating variances of ‘something is wrong’ or the writer describing our hero in various stages of ‘rage’ do little but take the reader ‘out’ of the book and become, frankly, annoying. There’s a particularly poor internal monologue by our protagonist admonishing himself as he attempts to outrun an angry mob; ‘You’re squandering your cushion of distance’ that is unintentionally hilarious and serves only to disrupt the tension.
Overall a diverting tale, but one it could be argued would have benefited greatly from a little more outside editorial control. It’s a work by an author who perhaps has allowed himself to over-indulge in a concept beholden to him at the expense of a much leaner and perhaps more disturbing read.
Order your copy of Pines right here.