|summary||An interesting novel of murder among high school outsiders.|
Alex, the protagonist of the story, is a geeky kid. He gets picked on. And he kills somebody because of it. But that's pretty much where the similarities between Alex and Dylan Klebold end.
What's refreshing about Half Mast is how the author accurately captures the world of a high-school outsider. Writers can be pretty introverted types themselves, but few of them end up killing anybody. So when they try to imagine the type of character who would, a lot of them tend to fall into the trap of inventing someone even more unfathomably nerdy than themselves. Thankfully, Null avoids this.
Alex isn't a complete, pathetic loner. He has friends. And together, Alex, Travis and James aren't the typical cookie-cutter stereotypes of kids too terminally dorky to get with the program. They're not so trollish that they can't get within booger-flicking distance of a girl, or so chess-club square that they wouldn't touch a drop of alcohol at a party (in fact, they spend much of their summers doing just the opposite). Null gets it: that most geeks aren't necessarily "deprived," and being an outsider isn't always about being excluded. It's about being different -- and that, in and of itself, can have its consequences.
In Alex's case, his nemesis is Steve Williams: hometown hero, star athlete, the pride and joy of Fall Valley High -- if you care about that sort of thing, that is. Alex doesn't, particularly. He fails to kowtow to Steve the way the way Fall Valley's golden boy thinks he deserves -- and here's where his proverbial troubles begin. Steve subjects Alex to a series of humiliating tortures that should have even the most picked-on geek cringing.
When Alex does finally strike back, it isn't with a hail of gunfire, either. He's calculating about it. I must admit, I'm not really convinced that Alex's modus operandi would actually pan out the way it does in Half Mast. But it certainly makes for more interesting reading than your standard shoot-out, and in its way, it's much more sinister. Also, because Alex doesn't have the option of the Columbine killers' quick way out, he's forced to live with his actions and their impact on his own life.
That's the book's focus, and what saves it from being just another wannabe crime thriller. Christopher Null cares about his characters, and he's taken care to depict them in a way that geeks will find sympathetic and (mostly) believable.
While a lot of Null's characters and situations were amusingly familiar, others rang less true. The Steve Williams character was a little too prone to making speeches about the relationship between bullies and their victims, for example, instead of just knocking Alex into the dirt the way the kids at my school would have done. There were also a few too many end-of-chapter "zinger" one-liners for my taste, and the novel uses the awkward device of a present-day journal talking about events that took place several years in the past.
Still, it's an impressive debut novel about an uncommon subject matter, and one I think a lot of Slashdotters would get a kick out of. Half Mast is a fast read, and an enjoyable one. It's also notable because the author chose to self-publish rather than go the traditional route. (Or maybe the topic was too "troublesome" for mainstream publishers in a post-Columbine world?)
You can purchase Half Mast from bn.com as well as from Null's own Web site at sutropress.com, which also has some excerpts from the book. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.