Author: Christopher Null
Publisher: Sutro Press
Price: $16.99 US
The cover of Half Mast worried me, from the back cover one learns that Half Mast is about a nerdy kid who seeks revenge on a high school bully. Couple this with Christopher Null’s chosen vocation as web site owner and general geek about town (featured in Wired, Yahoo Internet Life, Computer Gaming Monthly etc.) and you might be start to wonder if Half Mast is a novel or a relived experience with the names changed to protect the innocent. After assimilating all this information I wondered if this book was going to be some sort of high school revenge fantasy. My fears were unfounded: Half Mast is a solid, well written, interesting first effort that is intriguing enough to ensure I’ll be there to read the next Null offering.
Now that the natural fears have been allayed we can examine Half Mast a bit more closely. Half Mast is told from the perspective of a therapeutic journal kept by the protagonist. Alex, it seems, has taken personal vengeance to the extreme, Alex has committed murder. That’s right: no tenth year reunion schadenfreude for the protagonist in this story, Christopher Null weaves a sordid tale of full bore murderous revenge. Of course the revenge story has been around for quite awhile and most stories of revenge are pretty much the same as the next with only the setting changed. Being of the revenge archetype Half Mast could take place anywhere, retirement home, orange orchard or etc., and the story would hold up just as well. What really separates Half Mast from the rest of the books/movies/plays/ Saturday morning cartoons is the coolly realistic gaze at the aftermath of the vengeful deed and the deeply flawed protagonist.
In most tales of vengeance and righted wrongs the protagonist is ivory soap pure and good whilst the recipient of said vengeance is always deserving and roundly evil. Except Alex isn’t all that likable or good. Alex is a bit of an intellectual bully, he’s sure he is smarter than everyone around him and he lets the people in his life know of this superiority through a mocking style and quite a bit of condescension. Still he’s not intelligent enough to rise above the more base emotions and divine a way out of his problems short of resorting to the most bullying act of all: murder. Alex isn’t as innocent as he thinks he is and, with a few tweaks, he could well serve as the villain. This depth and ambiguity makes Alex one of the most interesting aspects of Half Mast . Alex as a multi dimensioned, simultaneously sympathetic and dislikable character serves to make him seem very realistic. If this were the real world Alex would just about like anyone you know but wouldn’t consider a friend, actually a “good” person while not actually a “bad” person. Just someone you’d rather not be around.
As deep and involved as Alex is, his nemesis Steve William’s, is as one sided as a Mobius loop. Steve William’s is utterly vile and consistently repulsive. No surprise since as far as I can tell Steve William’s would be the world’s all time worst bully. This is an understandable and appreciated depiction of Steve on one level because we only know of Steve’s actions from Alex’s journals and, after all, Alex hates Steve enough to kill him. On another level if we take what the journal entries relate to be true, and there is no reason not to, then Steve William’s is guilty of every crime except hosting a bar-b-cue serving long pig while sermonizing on the tactile virtues of baby seal clubbing. There are a few attempts to make Steve seem somewhat human; he occasionally displays a bit of creativity and, in one instance, a bit of remorse. These fleeting moments are neither deep enough nor profound enough to make the reader sympathize with Steve in any meaningful way. Steve’s moments of humanity just heighten the sense of loathing the reader has already developed; after all if Steve is actually human then he is fully culpable for his actions.
I’ve already noted that Half Mast is well worth reading for entertainment value if for no other reason. But now the question is: Is Half Mast literature? That’s a tough call for me. You know the old saying, “I know pornography when I see it” which is true enough in my case (though sometimes I have to look at image in question a really long time to be sure). I can’t say the same thing about literature. You know what I’m talking about: You’re in the bookstore and you want, for example, “The Dangling Man” by Saul Bellow. Since “The Dangling Man” is a work of fiction you look in fiction and come up empty. Finally you ask one of the people behind the counter and they tell you to look in literature while they give you a look of pity usually reserved for people who are so dense they have to make a conscious effort to breathe. All this to make the following point: Half Mast is as good as any story I have read this year. As literature it fails. Half Mast tries to ask an important question about the true nature of revenge but the character of Steve is so utterly vile that you can never properly ponder the question. Instead of questioning the lasting value or satisfaction of an act of revenge the reader is left with questions like: Why didn’t Alex use a cheese grater and rubbing alcohol? It would’ve hurt more. Honestly, Steve is such a colossal prick and physically/emotionally damages such a great number of people you’re likely to find yourself wondering when God is going to step in and smite the bastard. A good story but one that never causes deep introspection.
Bottom line: Half Mast is an excellent story but when it tries to reach beyond fiction and elicit the tough questions it doesn’t quite make it.
MacMice Rating: 4 out of 5