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Friday Indie Review: Hazardous Materials by Kurt Kamm

I have to confess, I went into this book with a slightly jaundiced eye.  Here’s why:  the review request I received from Mr. Kamm read as follows:

I am seeking a male reader with a blog to review HAZARDOUS MATERIAL, my latest firefighter mystery, winner of the Hackney best novel of the year award.
(Female readers too, but this is a gritty, realistic book about law enforcement, drugs and bikers. No paranormal, vampires, or handsome heroes.)
Firefighters – Outlaw Bikers – Drones – Desert Tortoises – The Mojave.

 

Let me say that starting off our relationship by insulting my wife and, quite frankly, most of the female geeks that I know was not the right foot for Mr. Kamm.  Vagina does not equal must have paranormal handsome vampires.

Recently, Dr. Pepper ran an ad campaign  that trumpeted their new product as “not for women.”  This turned out to be a really terrible idea; it turns out that women buy far more groceries than men, on average.  The ad tanked sales of Dr. Pepper Ten, as women took the company at its word and didn’t buy the soda.  By telling me that his book wasn’t really “for women,” Kurt Kamm evoked a sense of dread in me; after all, that’s 2/3 of the indie reading market.

Still, I love Ender’s Game even if I think Orson Scott Card is a bigot.  So Kurt Kamm has a bit of a misogenist streak.  I bolstered myself, and prepared to give Hazardous Materials a fair review anyways.

Let’s start with the positive, here.  Kurt Kamm is a highly polished craftsman in terms of his language.  His sentence and paragraph structure flow nicely, and he’s got a very keen sense of how to put exactly enough description into a scene to bring it to life, without clogging down his story.  The mechanics of his writing are finely polished, and that puts this work above some that I have reviewed before.

 

It’d be really, really nice if he wrote a story.  Instead, he wrote Hazardous Materials.  The book’s title is derived from the drugs everyone in the novel seems to be on, as well as the fact that the protagonist works on a HazMat squad.  I would suggest to you that the title could equally be applied to the book itself.  Winner of the 2012 Hackney award (I couldn’t make that one up if I tried), this book lives up to both title and award in its story.

 

The problem, as I see it, is in Kamm’s goal in writing the book.  It’s actually most clearly expressed in the Introduction, written by a long-standing member of a gang task force.  ”If you are looking for a vanilla picture of drug use and the biker world, then stick to T.V. dramas with lovable and conflicted characters,” says Cook, and he’s right.  You will find no character in Kamm’s book that is either lovable or conflicted.  You won’t even find one that’s mildly likable.  Mission accomplished, I guess.

Kamm undoubtedly has a good sense of how the drug world works, and how addiction works.  He paints a realistic picture of these things.  But the characters he has moving through this story are one-dimensional.  The cop is motivated to Get The Bad Guys at all costs, anyone who rides a motorcycle is evil (Kamm laughs off the American Motorcycle Association’s statement that 99% of motorcyclists are honest American citizens as a naivete), and our main character just wants his next fix of Percocet.  Don’t get me wrong, here.  Percocet addiction does exactly what Kamm shows it doing to Bucky the Protagonist.  (This is not a snarky nickname.  Bucky is actually the legal name of the main character.  I have no idea why.)  Percocet makes everything else in the world less important than Percocet; that’s the big problem with addiction.  Your sister just blew up?  You really need some Percocet.  Smashed in the head with a shovel and left in the desert to die?  Why did they have to take your Percocet?
I do not contend for a moment that this is not an accurate portrayal of an addict.  It is.  In my day job, I’m a criminal defense attorney.  I work with addicts pretty consistently.  Kamm manages to completely nail their reactions to everything, which is to say “get more drugs and take them.”

The problem isn’t, as Kamm seems to anticipate, that it’s too shocking or gritty.  No, the problem with this book is that it is, quite simply, boring.

In 1995, then-Attorney-General Janet Reno made an announcement about how video games were evil.  She stated that video games should focus less on violence, and more on real-world skills.  As a response to this, Penn and Teller built the game Desert Bus into their video game collection, Smoke and Mirrors.  Desert Bus is a realistic game.  Here’s what you do:  You drive a bus over a desert from Tuscon, Arizona to Las Vegas, Nevada at 45mph.  After the 8 hour drive, you get a point, then you turn around and drive back the other way.  It’s a straight line, there’s nothing that happens for eight hours.  You can’t pause the game, and the bus’s alignment is such that it veers to the right, so you can’t stand up and go (use the bathroom, eat, etc.)  You sit there, correcting course, for eight hours.  Then you get a point. One. Point.

Writing a purely realistic novel has similar results.  Kamm is absolutely correct:  methheads are idiots, Percocet addicts tend to not be much better, and the low-paid county cops that chase them are only about one step over that.  Noone is intelligent, the obviously smart moves rarely ever get taken, and reading police reports about these people makes you want to tear your eyeballs out.  Reading a book in which these people all react realistically is like watching paint dry.  None of the characters are sympathetic, none of them have any kind of emotional conflict about anything, and as a result none of the characters are interesting.  As none of the characters are interesting, none of the relationships between characters are interesting.
And the plot.  The plot is this:  Bucky is sent to respond to a Haz-Mat event at 1:45 am.  It’s in the middle of the night, so obviously and with no other data the team knows it’s a meth lab because, you know, HazMat trucks never overturn in the middle of the night.

They respond in time to be told they have been called out instead of the police investigation unit for the sole purpose of faking immediacy; the cops don’t want to bother getting a warrant for the home, so they’re going to fake an exigent circumstance.  Everyone is cool with this.  Then, as the cops are approaching the home, it blows up.  Why?  Well, for one because that’s what meth labs do, but for another someone shot it with a rocket launcher.  Noone knows who, or from where, as a rocket-propelled grenade is clearly a stealth weapon.

There’s a girl in the doorway when the house blows.  Bucky can’t see her very well through his HazMat-team-issue nightvision-goggles, but she twirls her hair.  That means she’s his sister, who Bucky knows is currently doing time in a Colorado prison.  Turns out he’s right, and it was his sister.
And now we get our first big twist in the novel.  Despite Kamm’s slavish devotion to realism, despite all his claims and advertisements about how much reality this book contains, we find that Bucky has a superpower.  That doesn’t have enough splash; I’m going to say it like this:
Bucky the protagonist has a superpower.

The one thing, the one thing, that Kamm’s story has going for it is I didn’t really have to work to suspend my disbelief.  It’s like Kamm went out of his way to make sure that, in a novel otherwise burdened to immobility with reality, he shot my suspension of disbelief in the foot too.  The fact that Bucky’s nose can detect the specific chemical composition of a solvent dumped next to a recently-burned-out mobile home defies explanation.  Bucky is apparently a mutant, having been born with the same number of olfactory receptors in his nose as a dog.  That reference is directly made in Kamm’s book; it is not mine.

Fortunately, when told this, the detective immediately believes Bucky and launches a full-scale investigation into the chemical dump, which turns out to be from (surprise!) a meth lab.
So, we have a flat plot filled with flat characters, one of which has a random and inexplicable superpower.
And now, to bring this review full circle, let’s get back to misogyny.  All the women are whores. Well, almost all.  Some of them are only probably whores.  Now, it’s true that, in the drug/biker gang world, women are abused, treated as property, and routinely sell themselves for drugs.  I don’t have a problem portraying this.

But what Kamm doesn’t do is give us any other kind of female at all.  Out of all the investigating sheriff’s, all the Haz-Mat team members, the BLM responders, almost everyone is a man.  Kamm has allowed the misogyny he sent me in his e-mail to filter into his work.  I get the sense reading this that it is an insidious, subconscious misogyny.  Kamm didn’t intend to exclude women; it’s just that, when writing the book, clearly every character that even tries to do anything positive is a male.  That’s just what the character felt like it should be.

It makes the book lopsided though.  I’m a male reader, as requested by Kamm, and even I started having a problem with the lack of female characters.

In short, avoid this book.  It’s well-written, but when you write very well about nothing interesting, then you haven’t written anything worth reading.  Kamm is an excellent writer and a piss-poor storyteller.  I guess if you want to be shocked about what the drug world really looks like, then this book might be intriguing.  But if you actually want a story, you know, with well-rounded characters…read something else.
Friday-Indie-Logo One
*Originally Posted by Frog Jones