Friday, August 19, 2016

Lupo Danish Never Has Nightmares may be the first and only example of its genre: the superhero/gangster novel. This fact leaves the critic with some broad blank spaces to fill in. The first is the tantalizingly murky definition of “genre” when applied to a single text; Jimmy Callaway’s first novel is indisputably genre fiction, but is there such a thing as a genre of one?

Genre fiction’s proponents (as well as its detractors) often point to an emphasis on plot as its defining characteristic. Lupo Danish Never Has Nightmares lacks many of the twists and turns that many people describe as plot. The material, objective events described by the text chug ahead, one foot in front of the other. First Lupo Danish fights this guy. Then Lupo Danish fights this gal. Then Lupo Danish fights this other guy. There’s no intertwining dual narratives, dramatic inversions, or mistaken identities. But if Lupo Danish doesn’t meet this superficial standard of genre fiction, why is it such good genre fiction?

Maybe it’s that it’s a good superhero story. The contemporary mania for film adaptations of superhero comics has been accelerating since the beginning of the century (it still seems weird to say that, huh?). If the superhero-film industry is to be taken as a standard for how superhero stories are to be told, we can identify two bedrock requirements: big fight scenes, and origin stories. Billion-with-a-b-grossing films have been essentially nothing but big fights and origin stories. Even if franchises continue beyond the origin story, Spider-Man’s treatment in film seems to indicate that Hollywood thinks we need an origin story about every third film to hold audiences’ attention, even when it’s the same origin story for the same character.

If received wisdom is that superhero stories need big fight scenes and origin stories, it’s interesting that Callaway offers us heaping servings of one, but (at first blush) none of the other. Lupo Danish’s world has no shortage of superpeople thrashing the garbage out of one another, and those sequences are some of the highlights of the book. Callaway has a surprising facility with the description of complex action—his fight scenes are fun yet dramatic, cinematic while still feeling high-stakes. At moments, comic-book panels depicting the action hover all-but-visible before a reader’s eyes. Yet there is no indication in the text of where these ├╝bermenschen’s powers came from in the first place, how many there are in the world, or, notably, whether there are actually any superheroes in Fortlow City, the book’s setting.

Which brings us to the gangster half of the superhero/gangster genre. The titular character is a fist for hire, and we see him working on the behalf of insurance fraudsters and druglords-cum-property developers, but the cops are largely absent from this cops-and-robbers story. Lupo Danish lives in a world apparently devoid of state power to oppose the criminal powers that populate the novel. Though readers might expect some force of law and order to act as a foil for the criminality typically depicted in gangster stories, to a shallow reading, they appear to be as absent as origin stories. Lupo Danish Never Has Nightmares is a window on a sort of dark libertarianism where organized legal structures aren’t even a consideration for a mob whose capabilities are limited only by those of the superpowered John Galts they have on retainer.

But enough playing coy. Reader, these seeming omissions, of origin stories and of “good guys,” are not flaws. Notwithstanding that mass audiences have been conditioned to expect them, their inclusion is not, should not be, the critical standard by which the nascent superhero/gangster genre is judged. Jimmy Callaway, with a scalpel honed by the short-story form, has excised the extraneous window-dressing from this narrative. There are rollicking good fights, yes, but genre tropes are not the engine that drives this genre novel. Lupo Danish Never Has Nightmares is driven by Callaway’s ear for dialogue, instinct for structure and pacing, and above all, his rigorous exploration of character.

For all that the book’s material narrative may be straightforward, its psychological narrative is intricate and nuanced. For Callaway, the answer to the question “who was that masked man?” has nothing to do with radiation or magic and everything to do with choices, desires, and (I know this is macho-fist-lit but bear with me here) feelings. Where the events of the story are deterministic if not linear, the characters’ internal journeys are as intricately plotted as the best thriller. And while we never see a story of the origin of a character’s superpowers, we are treated to tragically honest stories of the origin of their characters. To put it glibly, we don’t know how Lupo Danish can slug a guy across a football field, but we learn why he does. And as it turns out, that is a far more interesting story, or—dare I say—plot.

Further, approaching the novel from this perspective helps to explain the puzzling absence of law enforcement from a crime novel. In Lupo Danish Never Has Nightmares, morality is something his characters have to enforce upon themselves, rather than have enforced upon them by some formal power structure. In this, Callaway joins Jean-Paul Sartre in offering an exploration of, if never quite an answer to, what I have always seen as the most important question superhero stories raise: when you can do whatever you choose, what will you choose to do, and why?

Buy it here.