The Terror of Living begins with fifty-something ex-con Phil Hunt trekking into the wilds of northern Washington State on horseback to pick up an air-dropped heroin shipment. Small town deputy Bobby Drake catches Phil and his partner in the act, with Phil managing to escape but the heroin and his partner shit out of luck. For costing his employers millions, Phil is now on the shit list of the Vietnamese crime syndicate of Canada and in the sights of vicious hitman and knife enthusiast Grady Fisher. Phil is also on the run from Bobby Drake, who has taken up the chase with the Seattle branch of the DEA. But as Phil’s running gets more desperate and the bodies start piling up, Drake starts to regret his intrusion into Phil’s life more with every Grady-caused massacre he comes across after the fact.
So you’ve got a decent guy involved in a border-smuggling of massive amounts of heroin, an impossibly cold-blooded psycho, and a sympathetic lawman on the case. I think you know, dear reader, where the Nerd is headed with this but let me drive it home by adding that the psycho has a spring loaded knife on his forearm that flies out with a flick of his wrist (not quite as cool as the hydraulic cattle-killer but pretty close), that the novel is swiftly paced and loaded with hugely violent action sequences, and that though set in the modern day it has the overall feel of western. If you’re still losing at “spot the influence” right now you’ve probably neither seen nor read No Country For Old Men. (And if that’s the case, holy shit, man! Prepare the proper provisions and venture out from your cave to read the Cormac McCarthy book and watch the Coen brothers film toot-fucking sweet!)
But though dude’s not about to win any points for originality with his debut novel, Urban Waite has indeed crafted a helluva ride that’s very much worth taking. Instead of writing off The Terror of Living as a rip-off and running away from it as fast as your snooty, pale legs can take you, I like to think of the novel in film terms. If No Country For Old Men is Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, then The Terror of Living is Walter Hill’s The Long Riders. A more apt comparison would be Andrew Dominik’s brilliant The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to Walter Hill’s The Long Riders as they’re both about the James Gang, but too many fucking cinematic philistines hate on that film so the ol’ Peckinpah-Hill debate will suffice here.
Where Peckinpah’s masterpiece is a beautiful, challenging and revolutionary work of art, The Long Riders is a terse, efficient and wonderfully crafted piece of pop entertainment. (Let the charges of snobbery flyeth!) If you just accept the book on those terms, as a less challenging but completely engrossing version of a McCarthy novel, the Nerd guarantees you’ll have a fantastic time. Also – and I haven’t done any research on this so I’m just talking out my ass – but as No Country and and four other novels are cited as influences of The Terror of Living in the acknowledgments page, I wonder if maybe this was a grad thesis novel for Waite.
But just because dude’s no Cormac McCarthy (guy’s fucking thirty for fuck’s sake – give him some time), don’t let the Nerd lead you to believe that Waite doesn’t have some poetry and nuance in there. (Don’t think that Walter Hill doesn’t have either of those in his punchy, badass filmography either, for that matter.) Yes, the violence is kick ass and the plot is non-fucking-stop and it wraps up nicely in a way that anybody can enjoy as opposed to a fifty page monologue or a discussion of a dream Tommy Lee Jones’ character had (cut-to-black) that will throw off fickle, stupid readers (or viewers) that don’t like a challenge (It’s official: This is my most pretentious review to date), but Waite’s prose is sharp and the characters and their arcs are indeed quite complex.
Unlike McCarthy (Somebody please stop my ass – I can’t shut the fuck up with the comparisons in this review!), dude can set a scene nicely without going overboard in the descriptions. The rainy climate of Washington and pristine beauty of its mountains and shores is starkly evoked but never lingered on. His dialogue is terse and never showy and his characters well-drawn, his lore (I always feel like I’m a douche at a fucking college workshop when I drop that term in a review) is effectively used in numerous scenes about the drug business, horse training and riding, guns, knives, butchery – people and animal-wise. The novel’s pace is Swierczynski-esque too, scenes rarely lasting more than a couple pages before cutting to another character’s current predicament, making for some real two-more-pages-then-I-swear-I’m-done-for-the-night marathon reading streaks.
But the quick pace doesn’t lessen your affection for or short-change the complexity of the characters in the novel either. Take, for instance, the journey of Bobby Drake’s character in The Terror of Living. Thirty years old with a wife and a low-paying job in small town law enforcement, Drake was once a college basketball star until he left school following his father’s arrest. The town sheriff at the time, Bobby’s dad was caught doing exactly what Bobby catches Phil Hunt doing up in the woods, his father now serving time in maximum security. Drake at first looks at his pursuit of Phil as a shot at redemption for the family name, but as the death toll rises and he comes to understand Phil and his struggles to provide for his family, he comes to also understand his father and the reasoning behind his bad deeds.
But really, even if the characters and prose weren’t so exceptional, I’d still recommend this intense and exciting novel. The Terror of Living reads insanely fast and has a wild-ass plot filled with badass killers, you know, killing motherfuckers. Even if you’re a Peckinpah man well before you’re a Walter Hill fan, you’re gonna dig the hell out of what Urban Waite has cooked up for you in this fucking dish. Here’s hoping, though, that he leaves the recipe book behind on his next attempt.