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Bad Man
by Dathan Auerbach
Doubleday, $26.95, 400pp
Published: August 2018

The obvious question that readers will ask themselves as they read this book revolves around which character is the bad man of the title. One reason why it works so well is that there isn't a single answer to that question and it takes the entire page count to clear everything up.

The problem I have is that it's such a slow burning mystery drama that I'm unsure if I can actually say anything without giving something away!

What I can say is that 'Bad Man' is ostensibly a mystery in which one young man loses his younger brother and doesn't want to give up searching for him. Ben is the former and he's fifteen when it all goes down at a local grocery store. He's there with his three-year-old brother, Eric, and the toddler's rhino plushie, Stampie. After an odd argument in the store's bathroom, Eric disappears and he hasn't shown up five years later when Ben lands a job at the very same grocery store.

If it's a mystery, it's phrased rather like a horror novel, but a very slow burning one. The first hundred pages could be the first hundred pages of a Stephen King novel, but while King would keep veering into horror as he went, Auerbach doesn't do that, outside the odd pages that show up every now and again that feature stuttering poetry/prose on what's made to look a little like fax paper. Does this have meaning? What meaning could it have?

Otherwise, Auerbach stays in straight drama, continually hinting at banal explanation. There's something about the baling machine. There's something about Ben's boss. There's something about the families that live nearby. Sure, this is all dark stuff but it's thriller dark rather than horror dark.

Of course, it could all be in Ben's head, because Auerbach digs really deep into his characters, which number surprisingly few in a book that contains so much admirable detail. By the time we finish this book, we could work Ben's job at the grocery store, including the equipment. The first hint that it might be real is when Stampie shows up in lost-and-found no less than 64 pages in. That discovery revitalises Ben's quest, which in turn drags others along with him.

I really can't say much more than that, but I can add that 'Bad Man' goes to some really dark places. There are layers throughout and a fantastic, truly twisted ending that resonates powerfully. Someone should turn this into a feature film, but they'd have to cast perfectly for the finalé to work as effectively as it should. The characters here are truly deep and would warrant character actors able to fill those depths.

While the payoff is fantastic, the slow burn is very slow and it has the potential to lose a lot of readers who just don't have the patience to stay with Auerbach as he slowly grows his story. I was fine with it, my biggest problem being his allergy to apostrophes, which grated often. His characters are somewhere in rural Florida and I have no problem with them dropping the 'g' off the end of words, but in prose, apostrophes should take their place. I got highly annoyed at all the uses of bein, goin and doin and their ilk. Auerbach would probably say he's workin somethin, but I wonder how many readers appreciated this affectation.

And I guess that's about it, because spoilers are way too easy here and I don't want to go there. If you like your drama dark and you have patience to let it build through characterisation rather than plot, then this may well be the answer to your prayers. If you want plot and you want it now, dammit, this really isn't for you. For my part, I liked it. A lot. And I have a feeling it'll stay with me as long as the corpse in the prologue stayed with the kids who found it. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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