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Rhetoric Drowns Out The Thrills In Huston's 'Skinner'

Charlie Huston's 2010 novel, Sleepless, bowled me over. What a powerful combination of combustible plot and fiery language! At the center of that book, an insomnia plague spreads across Southern California (and the rest of the country). The illness keeps you awake all night, quite fuzzy-minded during the day, and then after a couple of months it kills you. The only thing approaching an antidote is a drug called Dreamer, which makes a little sleep possible before you die.

So here's Charlie Huston's new novel, called Skinner, a book I've been looking forward to after the pleasures of reading Sleepless. Sorry to say, this new one is a huge letdown. The titular Skinner is a high-level international bodyguard. He's made a career in what his customers call "asset protection." Skinner acquired his nickname because his rather sociopathic scientist parents raised him as a grand experiment, in one of the hermetically sealed environments made famous by the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner. Reward good behavior, punish bad behavior, and you'll make a great child. That's the theory, anyway. Unfortunately for Skinner, his early life has made him into a great killer as an adult. He abides by a maxim: "The only way to secure an asset is to make the cost of acquiring it greater than its value."

As the book opens, Skinner's been exiled by national security suits who are — rightly — afraid of him. When a threat appears — a Stuxnet-like computer plot to destroy a large part of America's infrastructure — upper echelon managers in the CIA hire a dreamy roboticist named Jae to trace it to the source. They bring Skinner out of exile to protect her, and protect her he does. Guns go off. Knives come out. Bodies bleed and fall. And happily for him, this lonely boy of the box falls in love with the roboticist even as Western civil society seems to be tumbling down around their ears.

The action scenes work beautifully, taking on vivid and stark reality on the page, as when Skinner ambushes two men arriving in an apartment to kidnap Jae: "Skinner shoves several fingers into the man's mouth, hooking them into his upper palate and pulling. His other hand is already at the left side of the man's neck, shoving the curved #28 blade of the X-ACTO into his jugular and pulling it across his throat." Things are a little more confused and less effective when Jae herself, under Skinner's direction, takes part in her own protection. Ambushed in a European train station, she shoots at a woman who has been gunning for her, aiming for her torso: "Impossible shot, bringing from between their bodies the pistol Skinner pressed into her hands ... firing from the hip, Skinner's hip." Jae misses her shot, but Huston describes the action no less balletically than the deadlier moments as "Skinner shoves her and she starts to fall against the steps ... then she hits the steps hard and the gun is ... bouncing down the steps toward the tile floor of the tunnel ..."

Charlie Huston is an author of both novels and TV scripts.
Sabine Braun / Little, Brown and Company
Little, Brown and Company
Charlie Huston is an author of both novels and TV scripts.

If only Huston had kept to these meticulously drawn action sequences, which punctuate the narrative with a forward-moving drive. But the action comes bracketed with a load of rhetoric, page after page tricked out in a blinding avalanche of lists of 21st century mishaps and mayhem that sounds like a blend of William Gibsonish future patter and Thomas Pynchonesque conspiracy mash. Take this description of material from a cache of maps that Jae finds in a file box, once the property of a murdered high-level CIA boss. "Brazil highlighted, undersea telecom cable landings and several mineral resources. Battery grade manganese, niobium, etc. India. Chromite mines. Pharmaceuticals manufacturing, chemotherapy agents," and then an info-dump of TOP SECRET CIA files. "War. Inlet. Penultimate. Cause. Contraction. Tides. Resources ... Bio-disaster event horizon. Liquid metal fast breeder reactor. Orbital mirror array. Al Qaeda franchise structure. Black start. Neutron poison ..." This keeps on pouring from the page, eventually overwhelming the physical action itself.

"What has happened before," Huston writes, "are any number of things that feel similar. 9/11. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. London subway bombings. Bombay attack. Madrid bombings. Asian Tsunami. European heat wave. Darfur. Somali pirates" and so on — and on — into a novel I couldn't wait to read and ultimately found terribly disappointing. Alas, like that drug Dreamer from Huston's previous work, it put me to sleep.

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Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.