In Greg Rucka’s riveting new novel names play an important part in the drama, his characters are constantly giving new names and titles to the things around them: they create code names for their comrades and the points of the compass, they falsify documents and relationships to strengthen their fake identities, they wear a costume for the entertainment of children or use the simple demarcation of numbering tangos for our clarity in an action scene. So it only seems right then to pay close attention to the name of the book itself, Alpha. Alpha, in the military jargon that Rucka uses so respectably (reminiscent in this way of David Simon’s Generation Kill and its authenticity) only appears in the book once and so i’m guessing when i say that it means first: the first floor, the first target, the first threat and the first objective. So when seeing it on the front cover I can only imagine that it stands for the first step or the foundation of a series of books to come and if the quality of the content inside the covers is indicative of what’s to come then I can’t wait to read and own each one.
Though on the micro Rucka’s prose throughout is perfectly military – his narrator’s observations those that a soldier would make – this never denies him the opportunity for poetics; the man’s writing is still plenty pretty thanks primarily to the way in which his phrases flow from one point to another, almost like eyes scanning their surrounds. Wheras Generation Kill‘s convoy kind of slowed to a slog, its tyres shot out by the way it tried to say only the right things in only the right ways, Rucka’s authentic approach in Alpha falls second to the frenetic drive of fiction on the macro. By mixing the ‘mundane’ reality of terror threats with the larger than life world of amusement parks Rucka has created a book that reads like a literal roller coaster ride.
I know that this is now a cliché comparison to make but it feels more appropriate here than it ever has before. Like a real roller-coaster Rucka’s novel is not half build and half bang, it’s not a series of ups and then downs; no, it’s a few seconds of slow, stomach quenching incline followed by hours of rapid and seemingly random descent, the ratio making no physical sense but taking you on such a thrilling ride that you don’t much give a damn. Every element that is set up in the first few pages pays off at some stage later on in the book, but the progression of the plot always feels natural and never like forced foreshadowing or a ticking off of boxes. The facts given on the WilsonVille fun park are fascinating enough on their own to stand as simple humorous observations, that they also serve another purpose is just indicative of sleek writing.
That they also serve a third is what makes this book transcend the thriller genre. That the action takes place in an amusement park is not coincidental, certainly it opens up some nice metaphors for us critics but more importantly it imbues the story with a stronger meaning. Alpha is first and foremost about bring as much fun as one can have with a flat piece of paper, but it also reads simultaneously as a study on our loss of our collective childhood, an action packed mediation as it were. 9/11 officially ended America’s infancy, it was a coming of age for this country and how better to represent that then by having terrorists quite literally attempting to destroy a symbol of American excess and innocence like WilsonVille ( or Disneyland for those of us living in the real world)? I expected the book to be thrilling, but I never thought that it would be as effecting as it was.
Despite these many layers of meaning found within its setting there is surprisingly no reliance on novelty in Alpha, with only a few minor changes this story could have worked just as well at a sports field or office block; The real important things are the agents and their actions. Though Alpha is billed as the first of many Jad Bell books – something that i find only ever happens with thriller titles – it’s really much more of an ensemble effort. The supports are given cares, goals and feelings – a humanity – of their own and this makes them just as compelling as the main character. Gabriel Fuller for example is the kind of role that would normally remain little more than a mustache and a trigger finger in thrillers like this, but his arc here is perhaps the most interesting in the book, capable of carrying a novel on its own.
The scenes starring Jad’s ex-wife and deaf daughter should be seem a drag, but like last years Terriers Rucka renders them just right; instead of simply existing as indignant obstacles to our heroic lead they add another layer to him and read remarkably on their own. The first of the daughter’s perspective chapters is so cleverly crafted; I read it inside my apartment after a hundred pages out in the bustle of the public park and this quiet perfectly combined with the content to create an amazing moment; though I think his words work well enough on their own to make the park and it’s rides seem strange and spectacular from her special perspective. Rucka uses a really unique technique here that I hope to see more of in the future.
Similarly the politicians, bureaucrats and police officers that become involved are all capable people with reasons to make the calls that they do: there is no unnecessary stand off with the chief who just doesn’t believe this kind of thing could be happening, no senator who puts the mission priorities in the wrong order to help win votes, no press rep who leaks the wrong info at the wrong time. Yes the people in these roles are flawed, but realistically so; mostly they are just doing exactly what it is their job to do, exactly how they think they should. There is no contrived conflict or unnecessary complications, which is fine by me because smart people fighting smart terrorists is enough conflict to carry a book as far as I can see.
Honestly, besides one dropped quotation mark near the top of page 207 I would say that this is probably a perfect thriller, the perfect airplane entertainment, provided of course that you wait and buy it at the airport, otherwise there is no way that it will last till take off ( Something I know from experience). Alpha gives you all of the action, thrills and drama of a pulp novel with all the polish of a canonical classic; it amps you up without ever talking down to you. Though it may not sound like it I am so glad that the publishers push these books to series because I’m already ready to read a whole lot more of Jad Bell. So go buy this first book and make that second one a definite reality.