Most good adventure stories contain an element of sadism; there’s a reason Philip Marlowe, James Bond, and the rest get beat up as often as they do. The thrill comes from seeing a character the audience empathizes with taking in more punishment than that audience will likely experience in a lifetime, and the suspense comes from wondering just how much more that character will be able to take. Judged on those terms, Sandman Slim, the new novel from Richard Kadrey, is a Sistine Chapel of pain. Stark, its magic-infused hero, is beaten, shot, stabbed, burned, exploded, and trash-talked on his quest for revenge, and he stumbles and wisecracks his way through all of it.
Eleven years ago, James Stark’s closest friends sent him to hell. Now he’s found his way back to Los Angeles with only one thing on his mind: killing everyone who did him wrong. He made the trip to hell as a living man, which got all the monsters and demons below excited. They made him harder to kill and pitted him against a series of vicious opponents to see what would happen; now he has all kinds of fancy powers, and he knows how to use them to make the right people hurt. All he wants now is some murder and a cigarette, but the aboveground has gotten complicated. His friends don’t trust him and his enemies have plans; it’s going to take more than stabbing to get through his mess.
Slim is a hodgepodge of influences, but it’s never stale; the narrative moves fast from the first page, and while the nature of Stark’s opponents changes, his quest to avenge his lost love remains constant. He makes a terrific lead—a wild bundle of punk energy whose violent tendencies can’t entirely mask his basic decency. Slim doesn’t have a lot of surprises; the reality-meets-mythology motif should be familiar to anyone who’s watched a couple episodes of Angel, and Kadrey doesn’t innovate much. Still, the L.A. Stark inhabits has enough potential to warrant a return visit, as does Stark himself. It’s an old gag, but a guy in a leather jacket, covered in blood that isn’t entirely his and hungry for the next smoke, will always be cool.