Friday, April 8, 2011

Expiration Date (Duane Swierczynski)

by Thom Dunn

Most people who know me can vouch for the fact that I love just about anything involving (a) time travel, or (b) noir tropes. Expiration Date, the newest novel by Duane Swierczynski, is a crime/noir novel about time travel, so needless to say, I was pretty excited to read it. It's like peanut butter and jelly, but with more pre-destination paradoxes.

Mickey Wade, the narrator and protagonist of Expiration Date, dies at the end of the novel. And that's just the beginning! (It's a time travel story, your temporal prepositions are bound to get a little messy) Prior to his death, Mickey Wade loses his job as a journalist for an alt-weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, and moves into his grandfather's apartment back in the crumbling neighborhood where he was born. The night that he moves in, Mickey has a few beers with a friend. He pops a handful of expired Advil before bed, and suddenly winds up in 1972. Stranger still, he seems to be invisible, and — oh yeah, his limbs fall off every time they come into direct contact with light. A few hours later, he wakes up in the present, sweating, with his limbs (mostly) intact. But on one of these trips, Mickey meets the 12-year-old boy who lives downstairs — the same boy who grows up and murders Mickey's father.

Swierczynski deals with some pretty heady concepts here, and under less skilled hands, these ideas could have easily stumbled into a convoluted mess. Fortunately, he approaches the story from a stable (and subjectively linear) first-person perspective, and relays the story in simple, relatable terms. Mickey Wade is a character grounded in reality, hard-up on his luck and out of cash, who finds himself thrust into a bizarre situation. This is further helped by Swierczynski's acute attention to detail. From the beer that Mickey drinks to the records that he listens to, Swierczynski writes with a specificity that paint a vivid and familiar portrait of his narrator. A Philadelphia native himself, Swierczynski's cartographic familiarity with the geography of the city helps to immerse the reader in the world he's created — you might not know where you are temporally, but he makes you feel at home spatially, to the point that you feel like you could give directions to a tourist upon your next visit to Philly. (side note: on my last trip to Philadelphia, I consulted Duane Swierczynski on places to go, and he recommended that I check out McGillan's Olde Ale House on Drury Street — the same place that Mickey Wade finds himself in the first chapter of the book. Behold, the power of Twitter!)

Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski

Story: 7.1
On one hand, Expiration Date can be seen as a fairly typical time travel story. It's great appeal, however, is in the way it's told, as well as the personal stories of the characters involved. The book is meticulously plotted and full of wild ideas, but still manages to make for a quick, easy, and ultimately rewarding read. I would also be doing an injustice to the author if I didn't note the clever ending of the book, an ending which is rendered so effectively due to the First Person narration of the story.

Style: 6.7
Duane Swierczynski's prose is simple and effective, and therein lies its power. He is able to express these surreal concepts and experiences in a lucid, uncomplicated manner, which makes the book all the more enjoyable. I actually found the story so compelling that I read it in one sitting; even the most seemingly straightforward and civilian sequences ended with riveting twists that kept the book in my hands. Swierczynski certainly isn't writing poetry here, and he hasn't quite mastered the dense pulpy prose of noir legends such as Raymond Chandler, but his writing still manages to express ideas in an unequivocal fashion.

General: 8
Swierczynski's past works have proven him a master of the crime genre (and Swierczynski himself is a strong advocate of genre fiction as literary fiction), and his recent stint on Cable for Marvel Comics seems to have ignited an interest in time travel stories; by marrying the two, he has created a highly entertaining thriller full of mind-bending, almost Philip K. Dickian concepts that are still grounded in incredibly believable characters.

Overall: 7.267


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