Thursday, September 14, 2006



I have more than squat to say about Squat. I just can't say it now.

Come back tomorrow. Until then, go buy the book. You won't be sorry.


Ok. I promised a review, so here it is.

As I suggested above, I liked the book. In a world where the trend in setting and conflict seems to encourage intercontinental jet-setting in a race to counter world-wide, fascio-Islamist, anti-Zionist, bio-terror conspiracies--I welcomed Field's attempt at the good ol' classical unities of time, place, and action. Could he pull it off though?

He does. And yet, that's not the book's undoing.

Squat is set in lower Manhattan, a few years back before the area began to be reclaimed by folks who decided that New York was as cool and Seinfeld and Friends suggested, and real estate developers began gentrifying some of the borough's ghetto-lands. Before the changes, though, the world of Squat was an ugly, ignored pocket of human pus on the otherwise taught and toned public face of Manhattan.

Squid, the hero (if you will) of the novel is one of those kids who falls through the cracks of parental neglect and lands on the streets, unable to accomplish much but to collect his welfare money when he can. Appropriately, the action doesn't take Squid much further than the four or five blocks his life revolves around. And Field is smart to compress the story into a twenty-four hour period, too. If Life happens in a four block area, a Lifetime can happen in a day. Simple lives make simple choices, and Squid's day illustrates that well: he wakes knowing he stiffed the biggest bully in the neighborhood and knows the rest of the day will be a life or death proposition. No high speed car chases, no international oil money intrigue: it's a simple conflict.

Field is also smart enough to introduce some unanswered questions about charity, specifically the Christian variety. One of his characters is a street philosopher of sorts, Unc, who prides himself in asking the unaswerable questions of moral dilemmas. (A sophisticated version of the kid who always asks if God can make a rock so big He Himself can't move it.) He's a thoroughly unbelieving post-modern creature who loves the paradox for itself, and not because it points to anything greater than itself. Appropriately, when the Squid's crisis comes to a head, the street philosopher bales on him. He's 'off-stage,' hiding out on the subway line, riding from stop to stop and back again, going, but not going anywhere. It's a fitting metaphor for the character and one of the nicer touches of Field's. But Unc seems to triumph when he stumps an eager young Christian college student who comes to volunteer at the street mission. However, while Unc doesn't seem to grow, the student volunteer (through Unc's challenges) does, and he begins to rethink some of his assumptions and pat responses about God and mercy.

How Fields handles the "edgy" stuff, though, often falls flat. To conform to the CBA's standards, Fields introduces a little trick that's a new one to me: Unc the street philosopher forbids anyone to curse in front of him. That's right. The unbeliever is the prissy one with 'standards.' And because we closely follow Squid, who closely follows Unc, there's not much opportunity for any hard language to come through. Field also keeps his bad guy, Saw, off-stage for most of the book. Saw's the kind of guy who would probably turn the air blue if we actually met him--and if Field had permission (or the desire) to portray him with absolute accuracy. But instead we only hear about him or see his cohorts until the climax, so Field also side-steps that potential pile of messiness. The result is that instead of feeling increasingly threatened by a very evil menace, I felt as if Squid were being hounded by the school bully who's threatening to take away his lunch. I get to hear about Saw's reputation, and I get to visit the possible scene of one of his crimes (and he is a bad dude), but the day goes on and on with this build-up--and the build up doesn't pay off like it should.

I have no illusions that merely letting Saw step out and lay a good cussin' on Squid would solve the problem. But perhaps, in the absence of a fully-fleshed portrait of his hunter, Field failed to give me a fully realised conflict. The appearance of light is increased in contrast to the darkness it illuminates. And while Field does try, I think this book would have been better served by letting us truly see the dark Squid is fighting to escape. Perhaps it would have been a blunter presentation, and it most likely would have been a shorter tale. But I think it would have served the message better. Instead of saying "Wow," I feel a bit like I got led around on a New Orleans Katrina tour: Look at the terrible things that happened here; isn't it a shame? Don't get out now, there's toxic waste beneath these tires, and you wouldn't want that on your shoes, would you? I got to look, but I didn't get to touch.

Did I like Squat? I did; for all my criticism here, I really did. Here's why: for all the talk about this being a book about those poor unfortunates who're left homeless and helpless, this is really a book about you and me. For all our probably middle class standards, and for all the things we take for granted about travelling and eating and friendship and love--we all live in a world like Squid's, bounded by experience and our personal limitations. We live with names not of our own choosing, and reputations not always of our own making. In small or large ways, the world has forsaken all of us, somehow. And even when we claim the Christ for our own, we must work to escape the ghettos of our own sins. If you missed that point, rethink the book. Don't, don't miss it, folks. This ain't no tour bus you and I are on, and in the end--whether Field is happy or not with what I perceive are the limitations of this work--this is what the author wants you to know.

Shanna, I just keep hearing about Squat and I'm never one to be behind on a book trend so I just ordered it from Amazon! I'll let you know what I think...
Do. I'd be interested to hear it.
A great review, Shanna. Man, you're good at this stuff!
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