I opened my eyes to see the rat taking a piss in my coffee mug. It was a huge brown bastard; had a body like a turd with legs and beady black eyes full of secret rat knowledge. Making a smug huffing sound, it threw itself from the table to the floor, and scuttled back into the hole in the wall where it had spent the last three months planning new ways to screw me around. I'd tried nailing wood over the gap in the wainscot, but it gnawed through it and spat the wet pieces into my shoes. After that, I spiked bait with warfarin, but the poison seemed to somehow cause it to evolve and become a super-rat. I nailed it across the eyes once with a lucky shot with the butt of my gun, but it got up again and shat in my telephone.(pp 1)
The opening paragraph to the book. And we're just getting started. This of course being the first book by Warren Ellis, comic writer mastermind. Or at least, the first one I've heard of. The press sheet doesn't say shit about previous works, but it also doesn't say, "DEBUT NOVEL BY A GUY WHO USUALLY WRITES COMICS," so I'm not too sure. Really, I don't care. Because this book is fucking brilliant.
What we seem to have here is Mr. Ellis' take on detective fiction. Our hero/narrator, Mike McGill, is an ex-Pinkerton man from Chicago who set up shop in New York City. He's a shit-magnet. This means he attracts the seediest crap for no apparent reason. Some might just call it bad luck. But apparently the President's heroin / monkey shit-shooting chief of staff sees this as a positive quality in our hero because he hires McGill to hunt down the Second Constitution (which is a near magical book that will be able to re-program Americans to be pure if read aloud to them). Soon after he meets Trix, a tattooed, fetish-fascinated woman who is writing a thesis about the disturbing fetishist cultures that exist in the seedy underground (more on this later).
I'm not sure if this is deliberate or just habit from comic writing, but Warren keeps the book centered around dialogue, and while I definitely would have liked some more description of some settings, he is able to make the pace of the book fly. I seriously read the whole thing in like, two hours or something. Which is a good thing. Because I probably wouldn't have stopped reading it until it was done.
On their journey, McGill and Trix meet people who like jacking off to Godzilla movies, dudes who inject saline into their balls, crazy-rich coke-fiend oil barons, and other fucked up subcultures that society would generally frown upon. It's like he's taken the world of Hunter S. Thompson and made it real. That is, to say, he reversed the roles -- the narrator is the straight one while the rest of America is FUCKED. IN. THE. HEAD. By reversing the roles, he's given the average reader someone to identify with when hearing stories about a group of people who got their jollies by fucking doped up ostriches.
The whole book can actually be seen as a vehicle for introducing the average American to the fucked-up-ness that is the world of loosely associated perverts and wackos, organized mostly by the Internet. Everything is explained at length (which is kind of annoying if you already understand how the Interwebbs work [it's tubes, right?]). But here's the kicker: Warren Ellis isn't trying to bend minds by introducing the general public to these issues; he's trying to make you understand that this isn't a minority. I think it was put best by the serial killer that McGill talks to on the plane. The serial killer talks about how he's had twelve TV documentaries, three movies, and eight books written about him, and how this has made him extremely popular and a mainstay in the mainstream culture.
He says: "I am the mainstream. I am, in fact, the only true rock star of the modern age. Every newspaper in America never fails to report on my comeback tours, and I get excellent reviews." (pp 163)
If this wasn't enough, he quips later: "Consider this, though. If I've seen it on the Internet, is it still underground? 'Underground' always connoted something hidden, something difficult to see and find. Something underneath the surface of things, yes? But if it's on the Internet -- and I do praise the Lord that I lived long enough to see such a wondrous thing -- it cannot possibly be underground. . . My point, however, is that the Internet is more than a system for holding pictures, whether it be of people's backsides or my hands all slick and yellow with human subcutaneous fat. It is the greatest mass-communication tool ever invented, and utterly democratic beyond the entry-level requirement of having a computer." (pp 164)
Makes a scary sort of sense, don't it? The next best part comes when in Las Vegas, McGill and Trix stay in a hotel shaped like "the statue of Jesus that stands outside Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Only in this version Jesus was dressed in an Uncle Sam suit." (pp 166-167) Trix, being the deviant subculture obsessed sex-fiend, can't stand the patriotism.
So Mike says: "'Look,' I said. 'You don't get to keep the parts of the country you like, ignore the rest, and call what you've got America. You didn't vote for the president, right?'
"No. I bet [the hotel clerk] did. Half the people in America did. More than half the people in America believe in God. You don't get to ignore that. I know you like telling me about new stuff and showing me that there's a whole other society in America and all that shit. So now I'm showing you: this is what the rest of the people have, okay?'" (pp. 168-169)
And that's the brass ring, folks. It's takes a limey Brit comic book nerd to tell you how your subculture works. And he's fucking right. But shit, before this turns into a literary analysis paper, let me give you fuckers what you really want: There's another part in the book where he's listening to some pirate radio station run by teenagers in Columbus, Ohio that's playing unsigned local community punk bands and gets busted by the FCC on the air and they all get detained as terrorists. You cocksuckers can identify with that, right?
Bottom line: This book is hilarious as fuck, the story is fast and interesting, and it'll make you much, much more open to the idea of sitting on an airplane and talking to a serial killer while you're taking orders from a functioning heroin addict who has commissioned you to find a lost artifact. Or whatever. Just read the book.