So many things in life are determined by a single action; big or small, choices always produce consequences. Cause and effect. There’s no escaping that. The thing about actually making choices is that once one is made you almost can’t help but wonder about the choices you didn’t choose; the actions you didn’t take. There are so many variables in any one given situation, so, how could you not? Even in the case of accidental choice making. Sometimes the universe imposes a decision on you, and takes the “choice” away. The most interesting aspect of this universe imposed dilemma is how we deal with it. We still go through the motions of the “what if” scenario, often thinking about other choices we made that led us into a position where the universe took control,and that usually leads to some type of mental “torture.” When life makes decisions for you, it opens up other roads of choice, and sometimes our refusal to accept that the things that we can’t control can cause us to make poor decisions, and lead us down roads that become a series of unfortunate events. Like some kind of “bad decision” domino effect. Sometimes, one bad thing leads to another, and, usually, we are complicit in this reality. These concepts are at the heart of Matthew F. Jones‘ A Single Shot. Taken at face value, this novel is a pretty standard noir crime thriller/mystery, but upon deeper inspection, it’s so much more.
The actual plot of A Single Shot is pretty straightforward pulp mystery novel stuff. I guess you could classify it as a “tragedy of errors,” in a broad sense. There’s nothing wrong with that, and as I’ve said before on this blog, just because something a little rote, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s “bad.” In fact, sometimes a simple story told well can be really refreshing. A lot of times I find that storytelling in more familiar territory can come off as “lazy.” Authors that work in these genres often use the fact that you already know what’s going to happen, as an excuse to not explain certain tropes, or cliches, and pretty much allow themselves to focus on plot, rather than deep characterization.
Thankfully, that’s not the case here. Actually, the dynamic here is almost an inversion of what I was just talking about. That’s not to say that the plot isn’t paid any attention, or is incompetent, that’s not the case at all, but it seems that Jones is much more interested in the way his protagonist, John Moon, reacts to it; often going into long passages about how he feels about the situation, his regrets, his fears, and the sense memories he has about the ares he’s in. This is a man that is fully realized as a character. He feels like he has a real history, and everything that is brought up reinforces his actions. It all feels logical, and appropriate. The further you get into the novel, the way he goes about things even makes more sense, as everything is given context. This may seem like it’s not a big deal, and admittedly obvious, but more often than not, in my opinion, isn’t usually paid much attention. Often, mystery novelists spend so much time on plot mechanics and machinations, that their characters only get the most skeletal of characterizations. They seem to be more focused on how “clever” their mysteries are, more concerned with the shock of a twist, than giving us characters we can get behind, or at the very least get to know.
The writing in this novel is really stellar. Jones draws such a specific picture for us, about this small mountain town, and it’s inhabitants. You get a very clear sense of the desperation of the town, it’s post apocalyptic, in a way, and feels almost as if this place has come to a societal dead-end. The people that live there have developed their own code, and morality almost. It feels like a place stuck in time, that, while containing modern accouterments, feels really old fashioned. It feels something akin to a classic spaghetti western; where character dispositions exist completely in the grey area of morality. They except that existence is harsh mistress, and in response they treat it with gruff brutality. It isn’t without it’s charms, though. Although, that may be “charms” that only the reader could appreciate.
Every character feels completely idiosyncratic. Even the ones we only spend the briefest moments with carry a weight to them; a reality, if you will. I don’t know if my personal travels influenced my mental actualization of these people. I’m sure it helped, as all life experience does, but the succinct nature of the physical descriptions, the limited awareness of John Moon, and the natural flow of colloquialisms in the dialogue make for some really vivid characterizations. The reason these people, and their dispositions work so well has everything to do with context. Like I said before, the realization of the town is really well done, and it would be hard to imagine these types of people not existing here. It does a lot of the “heavy lifting,” honestly. It’s a perfect symbiosis of place and characters, and it’s a testament to the author for understanding this dynamic. It feels like a world he knows. The dialogue feels like something he might have over heard in some back woods diner somewhere. It all feels real, and that’s probably the best compliment I could give to a piece of fiction.
We spend most of the novel inside John Moons tortured head. There is a lot of juxtaposing John Moon’s life experiences with what he is currently going through. Sometimes they can feel kind of arbitrary, but once you’ve finished the book it all makes sense. Not in a superficial way, though. It adds layers to the sub-text, and constantly reinforces the idea that all of the life we’ve lived has led is to where we are. So, there is a lot of pondering the very nature of decisions, and what motivated John Moon to make those decisions. They give an insight to the man he is. Even though he’s rough around the edges, John is a good and moral man. He almost feels like a vestige of an older era that refuses to compromise for the sake of “cultural progress.” He’s a simple man, that only wants a simple, self efficient life, but something always seems to get in his way. You could call him “unlucky,” I guess. The book unfolds beautifully in this respect. Just as soon as you start to question John’s motivations something is revealed about the man; not in a pedantic “I’m just going to tell you” way, but in a thoughtful, almost dream like fashion of John remembering something. They aren’t often direct, but if you’re paying attention they tell you everything you need to know.
I’m not without criticisms, though. It largely has to do with the plot of the novel. It’s a little predictable, and the closer you get to the end the more “by the numbers” it seems, and the mystery isn’t really all that compelling. For most of the story, it’s very patient and deliberately told, but the last 60 pages, or so, feel like they’re really rushed, and is at odds with the way the book had been paced thus far. Several of the sub-plots are pretty much just whole-sale dropped. There’s a lot of story left untold. To be fair, this story is told from John Moon’s perspective, and we don’t spend anytime with these side characters when they’re not with John, so, it makes sense, but still feels a little frustrating. Especially, the side characters that are directly part of John’s arc, and their absence also leaves John’s story feeling a little slight at the end. It’s a shame too, because up to that point everything was so fully realized. It’s almost as if Jones had grown tired of writing it, and just wanted to get on with it already. I obviously don’t know that for sure, but it’s the sense I got.
The end of the book feels incredibly abrupt, and honestly, at first I was kind of disappointed, but upon reflection it makes sense. It ends just like it begins, abruptly, and further reinforces the notion that sometimes life is out of your hands. Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do about it. No matter how hard you try.
This is a really great read for anyone that likes a good character study, and enjoys good atmosphere. Sure, the actual mystery plot is a little predictable, but the characters are what keeps you going. It’s not without it’s moments of excitement either, and there is a few really intense scenes of action, drenched in fear and John Moon’s sweat, blood, and tears. Also, as a bonus, it’s a pretty short read too. It comes in at 240 pages, so, the barrier for entry isn’t too high, and would make for a good rainy weekend read.
Just as a side note, there is a film adaption of this book hitting theaters this fall. Actually, that’s how I became aware of the novel in the first place. It looks really good, and from I can tell from the trailer, appears to be faithful to the source material. Well, Matthew F. Jones did also write the screenplay, so, that makes sense! I was looking forward to it before I read the book, and now even more so. While the mystery is a little predictable, I honestly just want to see these characters in the flesh. Also, it’s a bonus that this trailer is really beautiful, and it seems really well cast. Love me some Sam Rockwell! Here’s the trailer: