Book Review: The American by Jeffrey Thomas

“A riveting read, a fascinating mixture of mystery, thriller and horror with a depth not always found in such stories.”

 

The American by Jeffrey Thomas - coverJeffrey Thomas has been described as a prolific writer of science fiction and horror, and a quick online search will prove why. As well as being the creator of the nightmarish futuristic megalopolis Punktown, which has been the setting of many of his stories for over forty years, he is the author of the John W. Campbell award finalist Deadstock (Solaris Books, 2007) and Monstrocity (Prime Books, 2003), which was the finalist for the Bram Stoker Awards. As an author who prefers to shun genre preconceptions and constraints, much of his work seems to be a blending of two or more genre types. This is no different in his latest novel.

Opening in Vietnam in 2010, we are immediately introduced to the eponymous American, a less-than-legitimate businessman who has dealings with criminals all over the world, but who gives very little away about himself. He comes across as the kind of criminal who prefers not to get his own hands dirty, instead paying others to take care of things, thus maintaining a safe distance between himself and the crime. Unfortunately for him, in this instance, he must deal with an interfering primate-rights campaigner who causes trouble for a business partner offering a “unique” brothel service. It proves to be quite unfortunate for the woman as well, as he proves to be ruthless and merciless in his actions. It is an effective way for Thomas to introduce us to the character, as we quickly understand that he is driven by greed and selfishness, and allows nothing to get in his way.

Each chapter is told from different points of view throughout the book, and occasionally changes location and timeframe, but these are always helpfully highlighted at the header of each chapter. It offers a lot of insight into what each of the main players are thinking in each instance, without revealing all of the story too soon. While the main storyline takes place in 2010 in Vietnam, we are introduced to Richard Trenor in the same year, but working at a product standards office in Massachusetts. Through the cruel taunts of his colleagues, we learn that this Vietnam vet suffers some physical disfigurement to his face and head, including missing an eye. We also learn of a strong connection he made with a Vietnamese soldier, Quan, with whom he fought alongside, and a tenuous connection soon forms between Trenor and The American, something which sets the characters on a collision course.

So far, the book may seem like a mystery story with hints of crime and espionage, but Thomas then introduces the horrific and supernatural elements. Trenor possesses a rare ability that, despite the disbelief of other characters, allows him insight into those around him, and helps in his quest to uncover what happened to his Vietnamese friend’s daughters who have gone missing. It also offers him a way of unconsciously connecting with a customer of The American who may know about the girls’ fate. The mystery of what happened to the girls is enough to keep readers engrossed, but the added component of strange abilities and horrific visions will undoubtedly please horror fans. Especially given Thomas’s expertise of how to pace a compelling story with multiple threads.

The progression of his characters makes for fascinating reading as well. Whether it is Trenor’s friendship with Quan and all that that entails due to their complicated past, or Trenor’s growing friendship with Quan’s son, himself inflicted with physical defects from birth, attributed to the chemical fallout of the United States’s tactics during the Vietnam War. Or indeed the development of The American, from faceless killer in the shadows to a more involved role in a tragedy not of his own making, watching him manipulate those around him without remorse. Thomas doesn’t just settle for a cookie-cutter approach to his antagonist; he gives him his own agenda and setbacks, allowing for a more in-depth exploration of his character. Not to mention the disturbing history and development of The American’s customer who holds so much valuable knowledge, but which is best discovered through reading the book rather than this review.

All in all, it makes for a riveting read, a fascinating mixture of mystery, thriller and horror with a depth not always found in such stories. Thomas has drawn on personal experience of Vietnamese culture and geography to embellish an already engrossing premise. Together with his considerable background as an accomplished storyteller, this allows him to craft an original tale with true-to-life characters, complete with considerable and relevant back-stories explored just enough to give insight. He also manages to address, to a slight extent, the effect and repercussions of America’s involvement in the Vietnamese War, what it has done to the Vietnamese people and, in Trenor’s case, the lasting effect it has had on those American’s seen as both invader and rescuer. Not to mention the tender way Thomas tackled the stigma of disability and the unwarranted backlash such people unfairly face. When we add all of these elements together, it makes for a fantastic read, expertly delivered.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: JournalStone
eBook: 266 (pps.)
Release Date: 4 November 2020

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