Angry Robot, 2012, 384 pages
Miriam Black knows when you will die.
Still in her early twenties, she’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, suicides, and slow deaths by cancer. But when Miriam hitches a ride with truck driver Louis Darling and shakes his hand, she sees that in thirty days he will be gruesomely murdered while he calls her name.
Miriam has given up trying to save people; that only makes their deaths happen. No matter what she does, she can’t save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she’ll have to try.
If you like reading descriptions like "Harriet Adams is whiter than an untanned ass, bleached like ocean-soaked bone" and dialog like "Eat a dick and die, fuckpie!" then Blackbirds is your sort of book, starring a protagonist with a slattern's soul, a sailor's mouth, and somewhere, deep down, an angry girl who wants to do the right thing. Miriam Black goes out of her way to make herself hard to like, though reading Chuck Wendig's clever but profane descriptions and Miriam's nonstop barrage of obscene witticisms makes it worth the ride if you have a high tolerance for that sort of thing.
"Very observant," she says, giving him a thumbs-up and a wink. "I got bad news, Del. I am not actually a truck stop prostitute, and therefore we shall not be fucking on this good eve. Or morning. I guess it's morning? Either way, no fucking. No ticky, no laundry."
That jaw of his tightens. "But you offered. You owe me."
"Considering you haven't actually paid me yet, and further considering that prostitution is not exactly legal in this state — though far be it for me to legislate morality; frankly, I think what people do is their business — I don't think I owe you dick, Del."
"Goddamn," he says. "You love to hear yourself talk, don't you?"
"I do." She does.
"You're a liar. A liar with a foul little mouth."
"My mother always said I had a mouth like a sailor. Not in an arr, matey way, but in a fuck this and shit that way. And yes, I am a big fat liar. My dirty, torn-up jeans on fire."
She actually gets a lot more creative than "fuck this" and "shit that," and when she really cuts loose, she is both disturbingly graphic and awesomely profane.
Through the device of chapters of plot interleaved with chapters of Miriam granting someone an interview at some point in the future, we learn about her "gift" — whenever she makes skin-to-skin contact, she sees exactly when and how someone will die — and her background, that led to her living a grifter's life, hovering around the soon-to-be-dead like a vulture waiting to lift their wallets.
Miriam isn't really bad, she's just burned out, jaded, and seen way too many deaths. She's learned that she can't do anything to stop the deaths she sees, so she feels like a plot puppet of fate — if she tries to interfere, she just plays into the events she foresaw, and if she doesn't, all she can do is watch.
When she meets another grifter named Ashley, and a truck driver named Louis, she winds up seeing a death involving her, and for the first time in a long time, feels a desire to prevent it, not least because her own death seems to be in the cards as well. Her opposition is a creepy meth dealer named Ingersoll with his own obsession with the paranormal, and Ingersoll's two murderous flunkies, Frankie and Harriet. Harriet is a former housewife - a banal, boring, middle class housewife who is now the sadistic, psychopathic torture-killer henchman of a drug dealer. Her story is nearly as interesting (and far more chilling) than Miriam's.
Combined with slick writing and a fast-paced plot is a pretty good resolution to the writer's puzzle of how to write your way out of a supposedly immutable fate. Once you establish that the future is fixed, there are various ways to "cheat" and most aren't very satisfying; Chuck Wendig manages. That said, besides the unrelenting profanity and violence and the complete unlikability of the protagonist, I was annoyed by the "cheat" with which he had Miriam escape one of her more prosaic traps, by having the villain do something bone-jarringly stupid.
Wendig seems to be liked mostly for his writing and his characters, and both are very strong, but they are definitely a taste not suitable to everyone. The ending of this book obviously leads to the further adventures of Miriam fucking Black, and while I don't care if she doesn't tone down the swearing, I'd like to see her become just a little bit easier to like.
Verdict: Strong voice, clever writing, if relying a bit too much on violence and profanity . The characters are vivid and the dialog is snappy, but also leaning heavily on the ability to disturb the reader. The plot moves along, and gets to an end that isn't too much of a cheat. 7/10.
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