The Great Depression was a turning point in American—make that world—history. In the years prior to World War II, a series of events led to one of the lowest periods ever recorded. It was a blight, a plague upon the land and its people.
The landscape of the struggling nation was wounded and changing. Robert Jackson Bennett uses this period as the stage for his brilliantly dark debut, Mr. Shivers.
The novel follows Marcus Connelly, an uprooted man on a revenge-fueled quest for the man who murdered his little girl. Riding the rails and running with the hobo nation, he discovers many terrible things about his quarry, Mr. Shivers, also known as The Gray Man, the scarred man—his aliases are nearly as endless as the train cars that carry the transients from place to place. Connelly connects with a ragtag group of hobos, all on a similar quest for a similar result. They want to find and kill the man who has taken someone near and dear to each of them—Mr. Shivers.
Over the course of this 324-page novel, Connelly and his group meet varying obstacles. It appears that the villain they track is a little more than they bargained for. He has minions and cunning and skills that are a little more than natural. Guided by that ferocious beacon that is vengeance, our heroes follow him across a landscape so bleak and tragic it seems almost post-apocalyptic. Haunting and peppered with despair.
I will say that this is one of the strongest debuts I have read in some time. Bennett’s prose and use of language is fantastic. Poetic and downright lyrical, at times. I loved the details regarding the etiquette of hobo society and the starving beast that was America in the thirties. I was riveted the entire time, could not read fast enough, which is something I don’t often get to say.
The climax, while somewhat expected, was deftly handled and a good fit for the story. I suspect if Steinbeck had penned The Stand, it would have shared the same gritty feel as this novel. No higher praise than simply declaring Mr. Shivers a wonderful read.
Mr. Shivers, as well as Bennett’s follow-up, The Company Man, are both available from Orbit Books.