Vigilant by Will Bowron

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Ever since I saw Super I’ve never really been able to get invested in a traditional superhero story. What’s the worst thing about superheroes? Cheesy outfits? Police collusion? Zack Snyder? Vigilant by Will Bowron, book one of the Hudson Saga, suggests that the worst thing about superheroes is what they inspire in the rest of us.

Taylor (played in my mind by a Cronenburg amalgamation of every actor who has ever played Peter Parker) is a journalist who gets the scoop of a lifetime: a televised interview with the enigmatic Hudson. In this newsroom the part of Sassy Gay Bestie who has nothing in their life other than helping the protagonist on their emotional journey is filled by the station manager. But it’s OK, because Jake brings up some good points, like “Don’t do it” and “Seriously, though, are you sure you want to do this?” I’m being too hard on Jake. He’s alright. Unlike Alice, who is dead as shit. That’s Taylor’s formerly alive ex-wife, whom he has only recently stopped mourning. This is all connected in some way that Bowron chooses not to tell us just yet. This story has more teasing and front loading than one of those creepypastas called “I went into that one forest with Steve and you’ll never guess why I wish I hadn’t.” Taylor is determined to do the interview, and travels across the river and out of West Ham to the Hudson mansion. No, not that West Ham. They live in a place called West Ham, and it’s a fictional city in America. Don’t ask me why. On his way out of the city, he comes across a homeless person whom he treats with about as much dignity as an ugly horsefly. The guy asks for the time, and Taylor assumes he’s after his watch. It’s gratuitous and comes out of nowhere, and I couldn’t make up my mind if this was Bowron showing us that Taylor is actually the villain, like when Johnny Depp throws a lizard friend out of a flying stagecoach, or if the author thinks this is how normal people interact with the homeless. Seriously, Taylor calls the man a “whino.” That’s not Bowron telling us about Taylor’s bad spelling or something.

Then we cut to the next chapter, and I was sold (see? Front loading is easy!). The next chapter follows Sam, the homeless man who asked for the time (played in my mind by Aaron Paul). Sam’s life on the streets is tough, sketched out in brief but vivid detail. We get running tallies of his daily anxieties around food, shelter, and his fraught relationships with other people living on the streets. Oh, and the vigilantes. Apparently West Ham has gangs of thugs- again, not THAT West Ham- who roam the streets looking for alleged criminals to beat up. Sam needs a jacket to survive the coming winter, so he heads to the Salvation Army. The latte-quaffing, collar-popping middle class employees refuse to help him get his hands on a jacket he can’t afford in a scene that is both cartoonish and effective. Eventually Sam breaks the impasse by breaking a guy’s face and high tailing it with the jacket. Only once he gets to safety does he realize that he left his bag when he ran off. Out of the frying pan, into a larger, hotter frying pan. There’s nowhere to run from the vigilantes who have largely taken over day to day policing in the city, but maybe Violet will help him, or at least shield him from Davey. Seriously, every chapter ends with one of these transitions.

And they work pretty well. The suspense never becomes too obnoxious because the pace is quick and the characters are interesting enough to make you actually want to know who Davey is. Teases usually get resolved in a chapter or two with a satisfying reveal, which basically makes this book a unicorn. I only covered the first two chapters, because for once I don’t want to spoil too much; some of the early twists are pretty snappy. We get other perspective characters, too, from horny Jessica to hoary Hudson, and they all work reasonably well. I go back and forth on Bowron’s presentation of some of the characters. We really get to feel for Sam. But his humble background is partly shown to us by the fact that he can’t spell, which is very cringe (Lord knows I’ve seen some awkward representations of homelessness and classism on this blog). He acts like a selfish jerk, above and beyond anything that would be strictly required by his situation, but never to the point that he becomes unrelatable. Taylor and Sam take turns being unsympathetic, and I am surprisingly here for it. I guess it works especially well for tragic people like me; I am my own frog and scorpion, trying to cross a river. I also went back and forth on what I thought Bowron was trying to say. It’s never clear what the characters are saying as an allegory for everything that’s wrong with the world, and what they are saying as a mouthpiece for the author. I guess that’s a good thing? What is happening? Is this… literature? Is this what literature is supposed to feel like? What the hell is this poindexter doing on my blog? Somebody bonk an orc and bring the world back into balance, please.

This is one of those rare situations where I recommend a book without hesitation or reservation. In places Vigilant is a bog-standard crime thriller, but it’s well-crafted and just unusual enough to peek above the crowd. It’s five dollars on Kindle. Reviews might be a little spotty this summer, as I will be traveling around the United States. Thanks to my Protestant upbringing, part of my brain will always see vacation as just unemployment that you have to pay for, so no doubt I will be miserable the whole time, and tell you all about it when I return.

My favorite creepypasta is called “I like big butts and now I wish I hadn’t.”

Reaching the Heights: the Trail Above by Tony Woods

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

First off, I want to stress that I believe in everyone’s freedom of religious expression. I have no intention of belittling or disrespecting anyone’s beliefs. But hear me out: is Christianity an MLM? Tony Woods seems to think so. Reaching the Heights: the Trail Above is a getting-unsolicited-messages-from-the-girl-you-went-to-high-school-with-who-never-left-her-hometown simulator about an old man on walkabout.

The plot of Reaching the Heights is an allegorical tale of a pilgrim known only as Friend, but whom we’ll call Blony Bloods. In a move that causes fear and confusion to his long suffering wife Wife, he obeys without question God’s command that he go on a spiritual journey, combining the plucky resourcefulness of Pizza Rat with the smug dogamtism of a CrossFit trainer. Some guy named Charlie takes Blony to a spontaneous get together that sounds kind of like that apocalypse deli on the Appalachian Trail. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. Blony is joined by his son, whom he is promptly instructed to sacrifice. Then we get a long list of agents of Satan who try to tempt Blony off his path. They start with what I would call reasonable talking points like “Woah, crazy about your kid, right?” and move on to fiendish enticements like “But no, seriously, you should probably get a second opinion about all this.” There’s an archangel named Jake, and a literal scapegoat, who apparently works for the devil… I’m no religious scholar (case in point: are communion wafers still vegan if you believe in them? I have no idea), but I don’t think that’s what scapegoats do in Hebrew scripture.

Much like Star Wars, the story here is really just a scaffold to hang fun set pieces that turn out to be thick with religious symbolism. All the classics are here. You’ve got God working in mysterious ways whenever something bad happens, which undermines Satan’s whole thing of “No, seriously, that’s pretty fucked up, Bro.” I guess the “God is always right because he is right” angle is to be expected. Again, I’m not here to badmouth anyone for having faith in an idea. I do, however, take issue with the discussion questions. Oh, did I not mention this book comes with its own homework? The discussion questions at the end of each chapter peel away the paper thin veneer of allegory and lay the theology bare. The idea of a dedicated pilgrim on a vaguely defined trip to the heavenly kingdom is replaced by claims that the whole world is scarred by sin, and everyone has to pick a master whether they like it or not. Maybe I listen to too many pod- OK, not maybe. I do listen to too many podcasts, but this all feels like all the stuff they talk about in the first episode of a six-part series called “storming the armed yoga compound” or something. Be vigilant, pilgrim! The world is full of enemies, chief among which is the notion that maybe you’re not currently on the right path in your life. Jettison anyone who sows doubt in your mind, and always remember that God could beat up a cowboy if he wanted to.

Like I said, I don’t take any joy in denigrating anyone’s religious beliefs. And I understand that this is a tender subject since the book is semi-autobiographical. But that’s just the point. The author is a missionary. Nobody’s out here getting close to God as a missionary on their own. It’s all about the size of your downline. I know this, because the moment someone finds Jesus they turn to me, the most debauched, hopeless, cheerfully ruined person they know, and tell me about all the exciting opportunities that await me in the next life. New converts look at me the way a guy who just bought a Japanese sword looks at a watermelon on a stick. This is when I think these belief system become a problem: when they are less about what you believe and more about what everyone else believes.

Do I recommend Reaching the Heights? Probably. I almost always advise people to pick up whatever I review, because it’s usually entertaining horse malarkey. This one almost reads like a Chick Tract, or a pamphlet you didn’t ask to find under your windshield wiper when you come out of the Save-U-Right. But I think I can still recommend it as an object of curiosity for anyone who finds contemporary religious writing interesting. It’s four dollars on Kindle. Let’s reflect on what we learned. Since I am a merciful demon, I will not subject you to discussion questions. Instead, here are some religious jokes I made up or improved upon:

How do you stop a Baptist from drinking all your beer when they come over for dinner? Invite two Baptists. How do you stop two Baptists from fucking when you invite them over for dinner? Invite three Baptists. How do you stop three Baptists from kicking you out of your own dining room and turning it into a church with a shared mission and doctrine? Invite four Baptists. How do you stop four Baptists from singing barbershop at you? Invite five Baptists. How do you stop five Baptists from drinking all your beer when they come over for dinner? Tell them you’re a Methodist.

A respected imam called a global conference to reform Islam, and decide which bits they should keep or change. The Kazakhs asked to scrap the prohibition against alcohol. The Saudis asked to stop giving to the poor. The Turks insisted it was too hard to fast when your food is so delicious, and the Indonesians grumbled that Mecca was too far away for a pilgrimage. The only thing that everyone could agree on was that their favorite thing in the world was complaining about Jews. The imam furrowed his brow and asked if this was really what everyone wanted. “Fine, then. It’s decided,” he said. “We’ll all convert to Judaism.”

Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Life is suffering.

Timmy’s mother asked a priest to talk to her son about the indiscretions he got up to in his bedroom at night. Father O’Malley took him aside after Mass and told him that anytime he touched himself, all his dead relatives were watching. Little Timmy thought about this for a moment, then asked “Is that why you always tie me up first?”

I always start Confession with a table of contents.