Review by: Mark Palm
If it isn’t already clear, I love books. I really love what I call bookish books. Works like Pale Fire and Little, Big, that can exist only as a book. In this era when novels are sometimes optioned for films before they are even published, it’s a rarity to find bookish books, and even more rare to find good bookish books. Fifty Mice is one such book, and while it’s no Pale Fire it’s very, very good.
Jay Johnson has a very average life, a boring job, a steady girlfriend he may marry, but one day he is abducted, drugged, and questioned by faceless bureaucrats, with name tags reading John Q. Public and Jane Doe,and his paper trail is erased. He is told that he is in a Federal Witness Protection Program, and he will be staying in it for his own safety for a long time. The problem is that he has no idea why. What makes it even more unsettling is that the whole thing feels like a slap-stick horror movie, and Jay is stuck in the middle. It’s a daring move, but Mr. Pyne makes it work.
Jay is then removed to Catalina Island, where he has to say until he can reveal whatever it was he was supposed to have witnessed. The only way out that Jay can see by shifting through the lies, half-truths and false memories of his past, until he finds, or makes up something that will get him out. Making this even more difficult is that he is sharing a house, and it seems a life with a mysterious woman Ginger, and an enigmatic girl Helen, who may or may not be Ginger’s daughter.
A bare look at the plot makes this book look like a thriller, and Mr. Pyne has that down cold. All of the elements are there, from the tense narrative to the careful plotting. In truth though, this book is about much more - questions of the nature of memory and reality and identity are all raised, and all are done in the flow of events, subtly entwined in the narrative flow. The language itself is gorgeous, evocative and dream-like, and very apt to the whole feel of the book. It’s Jay’s story, and it is his voice that guides us through this Kafka-like maze, so Jay is the clearest character. All of the rest of the people, particularly Helen and Ginger, are spot-on as well. If all that isn’t enough Mr. Pyne takes it up a notch higher because he manages to meld the tension of a thriller, with the trippy aura of Magic Realism, which I might tell you is no mean feat. Mr. Pyne pulls it off, and he does it with ease.
What I enjoyed most about this book is what I spoke of earlier; its bookishness. Sure a talented ambitious film-maker could possibly make a movie out of this, but I doubt that he would do it justice. Fifty Mice is such a balanced concoction of, voice, prose, character, and a twisting, turning surreal plot that I would be thrilled to see Mr. Pyne get the big money that a film adaptation brings, just so that he could keep writing books like this one for a long, long time.
Oh yeah, and I know that I used the word book a lot in this review. Let’s call it a solid demonstration of the use of repetition.