Casey's Reviews > The Terror of Living

The Terror of Living by Urban Waite
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Feb 24, 2011

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Read from February 24 to March 07, 2011

Urban Waite's debut novel, The Terror of Living, is a frenetically paced literary crime thriller. Told in short sections, the longest no longer than eight or ten pages, and from the perspective of five characters (all in the third person), the structure and pace of the novel take some getting used to at first. It has the effect of jump cuts in a movie or TV show, but once the main characters are established forty or fifty pages in, the structure and style work really well for the story being told.

Speaking of the story, it follows Phil Hunt, a low-level drug runner in Washington State, who is happened upon in a desolate section of the forest north of Seattle by small-time deputy Bobby Drake. Hunt gets away, but loses the drugs, and in doing so brings the wrath of Grady Fisher, a vicious hit man hired to track down Hunt by the people smuggling the drugs. This brief synopsis probably makes the novel sound a little over-the-top, but Waite does a really nice job--with a couple of exceptions--of keeping the genre elements reigned in.

In the acknowledgements, Waite thanks, among many other people, several writers and their books, including Cormac McCarthy for No Country for Old Men. Herein lies my biggest, and really only major problem with the novel. Even if I hadn't read the acknowledgements, the similarities to No Country for Old Men are hard to ignore. It's understandable, and admirable, for a writer to express his or her indebtedness to another writer's work, but I think that it's possible to become too indebted to a particular writer. Given the power of McCarthy's novel it's probably easy for a writer to lean on it, whether consciously or not, especially when writing something similar in theme. I think this manifests itself most clearly in the structure and theme of the novel and in the character of Grady, the hit man. He is very reminiscent of Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. Like Chigurh, Grady is a sadistic psychopath, but all along he is completely aware of who and what he is, and unfortunately it doesn't come off, or at least it didn't for me. Also, his weapon of choice is his bag of knives, which just didn't quite play for me either. Where Chigurh is mysterious, Waite gives some background on Grady, developing him much more than McCarthy does Chigurh; however, in a strange way, McCarthy's Chigurh is a better character for all that is unknown about him than Waite's Grady, though he is more "rounded." It's almost as if in "rounding" him out, trying to in some way explain his behavior, the essence of his character gets lost. What remains is a character who's a bit too cartoonish, especially given that the rest of the novel works so well. Finally, there is a section where Grady and Hunt talk on the phone that is too long to quote or summarize here (pgs. 210-213), but if you've read No Country for Old Men (or seen the movie) then the scene will be very familiar. It's a great scene, don't get me wrong, but it didn't feel completely original.

Even with it's similarities to No Country, I enjoy The Terror of Living. After all, if you are going to use a writer's work as a model, then you could choose far worse than McCarthy. I read somewhere that Waite sold another novel along with this one, so we're likely to see his second novel in the not too distant future. Based on what he was able to do with The Terror of Living, I look forward to whatever Waite does next.

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