Viking, 2016, 278 pages
When Ben, a suburban family man, takes a business trip to rural Pennsylvania, he decides to spend the afternoon before his dinner meeting on a short hike. Once he sets out into the woods behind his hotel, he quickly comes to realize that the path he has chosen cannot be given up easily. With no choice but to move forward, Ben finds himself falling deeper and deeper into a world of man-eating giants, bizarre demons, and colossal insects.
On a quest of epic, life-or-death proportions, Ben finds help comes in some of the most unexpected forms, including a profane crustacean and a variety of magical objects, tools, and potions. Desperate to return to his family, Ben is determined to track down the "Producer," the creator of the world in which he is being held hostage and the only one who can free him from the path.
At once bitingly funny and emotionally absorbing, Magary's novel is a remarkably unique addition to the contemporary fantasy genre, one that draws as easily from the world of classic folk tales as it does from video games. In The Hike, Magary takes listeners on a daring odyssey away from our day-to-day grind and transports them into an enthralling world propelled by heart, imagination, and survival.
I spent much of this book trying to figure out where it was going. Like the protagonist, who is doomed to walk a seemingly endless path that takes him through dark enchanted forests, charnel pits, over oceans and through deserts, enslaved by demons and imprisoned by a cannibal giantess. What is the point? What's the payoff?
Ben is an ordinary suburban dad who takes a hike behind a hotel while he's on a business trip. It turns into an adventure where he is given a handful of rules ("Never leave the path"), some MacGuffins (magic seeds!), and told that there is a mysterious Producer responsible. Then he embarks upon trials and tribulations, never knowing the meaning or purpose of it all, let alone why.
There are encounters that flashback to his childhood traumas. The dog that maimed him as a kid is a recurring theme. So is the man who tracked him down after a plane trip to punch him in the face.
But then there's the talking crab. And the friendly homicidal giantess. And the Spanish Conquistador who joins Ben for years of toil in a desert.
The Hike is a long sequence of encounters, small adventures, and occasional revelations as Ben figures out a bit of this or that relating to his journey, until the end. But without a payoff, it's just a strange, surreal adventure with no rhyme or reason. It reads like a modern fairy tale with elements of Campbellian Hero's Journey, and in isolation, the scenes were entertaining, sometimes gripping. Ben becomes a protagonist to identify with, to cheer for, to hope he will get home and make it out alive.
But I still wanted that payoff. As a reader, I wanted to know, what the hell is going on? Of course being a modern reader with many fantasy and science fiction novels under your belt, many answers will occur to you. It's a parable. It's an allegory. He stumbled into another dimension. It's a simulation. He's in a coma. He's the survivor of an apocalypse. He'll turn out to be God or Prester John or the fucking Highlander. The author's going to pull a Stephen King on us. Something.
And eventually, at long last, he gets to the end of his journey. And there is a resolution and a big twist that was almost worth the price of the trip. Almost. Because it was clever and the clue had been laid, but it wasn't really an answer. It was just... a twist. The end.
So, I liked this story, but it was weird and surreal and, I felt, in the end did not quite deliver on its promise. If you're expecting something deep and meaningful as a payoff, I don't think it's there. Something heartfelt and cathartic, maybe, but it's a strange fantasy fable about a guy made to hike through lifetimes of hard adventuring to return to his family. I can't quite decide how much I liked it. Enough to maybe be curious to see what else Drew Magary has written, but I liked this book, I didn't love it.
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