Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sunday Book Review - The Wheelman

Watch Scriptshadow on Sundays for book reviews by contributors Michael Stark and Matt Bird. We won't be able to get one up every Sunday, but hopefully most Sundays. Here's Stark with his review of "The Wheelman."

SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW (The Wheelman by Duane Swierczynski)

Welcome back to Scriptshadow’s Sunday Book Review where we get to play Delancy Street Matchmaker, setting up jet setting, multimillionaire producers with our favorite, dreamy, deep-thinking authors. Unlike eHarmony or JDate, we provide this service totally free of charge without even asking for anyone’s credit card digits first.

It’s a thankless job, thank you. Hell, it would be nice if someone would at least spring for a gift card or a Nectarine of the Month Basket for our troubles. A few of the books we’ve reviewed have been optioned and a couple that were dying on the development vine have been lovingly picked back up and revived. Coincidence? Perhaps. But, I do dig free nectarines.

In case you haven’t been keeping score, this is the third Duane Swierczynski novel we’ve thrown bouquets at. No, he’s not family. Nor is he dating my sister. Don’t even know the guy to ask for a kickback. We just really, really dig his stuff. The dude knows his noir. He’s Richard Stark, Elmore Leonard and Max Allan Collins all thrown together and mashed up in whatever damned mess hall apparatus you’d need to make U.S. Army strength corn beef hash.

Luckily, Hollywood has taken notice. Severance Package, the book Roger gushed all over a few months ago, has already been picked up by Lionsgate. No luscious nectarines or tangelos for ol’ Rog though. This deal happened over two years ago.

So, what’s the set-up, Stark?

Let me first ask if you’d like a triple espresso with you noir? A triple espresso served with a sidecar of crack, laced with meth, added to a shot of adrenaline and frightened-cortisol-saturated sheep gonads delivered straight through your puny breastbone into your tachycardial heart with a Jolt Cola and Pop Rocks enema thrown in for good measure.

The Wheelman is pretty high-octane fare. A fast and furious crime spree that would make a much better vehicle for Jason Statham than The Transporter, Crank or whatever piece of crap he just sold another piece of his ever diminishing soul to star in.

(Okay, I actually love the actor and him starring in the upcoming adaptation of Ken Bruen’s Blitz is the ultimate act of redemption in my eyes.)

Oh, yeah, this isn’t any ways related to the Wheelman video game or the Vinnie Diesel flick of the same name. It has to be a gazillion times better. Hollywood may know how to really amp action scenes up lately, but The Swierz (You try spelling his name a half dozen times) really out-ratchets anything I’ve ever seen before.

So, you were getting to the set-up, Asshole!!!

Patrick Selway Lennon is a wheelman. For those who don’t know the bank-robbing parlance, he’s the driver; the guy entrusted with the getaway. The guy you hire to get you the hell outta there before the whip comes down.

And, like most heists, things don’t go exactly as planned. Well, who wants to read about a perfectly executed bank job? How dull. This one gets pretty much cluster fucked from the very start.

Lennon already hears the damn alarms ringing by the second page. He sees his partners trapped in the vestibule of the bank they were robbing like “two gerbils in a Habitrail.” He could just leave them there, but instead smashes the getaway car through the glass window and rescues the poor schmucks. Bank windows may be bulletproof, but they ain’t quite carproof!

Lennon is a pretty great wheelman, but he doesn’t have a lot of nifty, cool dialogue. That’s cause the Irishman is mute. So, he has a lot of nifty, cool thoughts. Not cinematic, you say? How dare you?!! What is more film noir than a protag’s constant voice over?

Like a combination of The French Connection and Frogger, Lennon wrestles the wheel and gets them out of there before the cops come, managing to avoid smashing a baby carriage in the process. The young woman pushing the carriage, however, doesn’t get off so easy. And, from there, Lennon’s bad day just keeps getting worse.

They ditch the getaway car in a parking garage, hide the loot in a second car planted there and take a third to the airport. Seemingly, an ingenious plan. There, they’ll split up in different directions till the heat is off.

But, on the way to the airport, a reinforced van crashes into them, flipping their Acura over. Lennon wakes up, finding himself in a body bag. Two college twerps are trying to stuff him and the rest of the evidence down a construction site’s huge pipe. Seems the mob has been using the place for a dumping ground since the project first broke ground.

Even stuck in a bag, Lennon manages to put up a pretty good fight. But, he still ends up stuffed down the damned pipe.

Don’t count him out just yet. He, and quite a few of the other characters we’ll soon meet, are guys that stubbornly and comically refuse to die. There’s a gal, Katie, waiting for Lennon in Puerto Rico and it would be uncouth to have her worry if he doesn’t show up on time. He crawls out of the pipe, kills the college kids, steals some clothes and tries to figure out who the hell just double-crossed him.

Now, there’s really not much more I can divulge without spoiling all the fun. The double crosses quickly escalate into more twisted triple crosses that you’ll never see coming.

No one is exactly what they seem (Did Lennon just speak? What is Katie doing in Puerto Rico snogging another dude?) Soon, everyone is after them, including the Russian mob, The Italian Mafia, crooked cops, bent politicians and a few accomplices they should never have trusted in the first place.

Though most of our readers are student scribes, I’m assigning this book right away for teaching narrative drive. Drive, He Said! The Wheelman doesn’t just chug along at a nice clip. It freaking burns rocket fuel. Imagine Mr. Toad licking himself before going out on that wild, fucking, murderous joy ride.

What I learned: As more and more screenplays are turning into glorified video games, how do you give your characters some realistic heart even if their outlandish antics are a bit cartoonish? Elmore Leonard grounds both his heroes and villains with believable dialogue. Start reading his entire back bloody catalogue and watch the brilliant Justified. When you get your characters crackling as much as your action, then you know you’re on to something!

Points for discussions: Which heists flicks do you feel worked? Would you approach it Michael Mann or Michael Bay style? Are you planning to write one? If so, may I plug another Swierczynski book? His nonfiction, This Here's a Stick-Up, might just start you out on your own life of crime writing.

More of Stark’s rantings and ramblings can be found here: