Thursday, November 10, 2011

Review of ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS by Anthony Neil Smith

Hi folks,

Here's a review I just completed on Anthony Neil Smith's newest novel, ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS.

What a brilliant novel! Alternating between the harsh landscapes of two cultures—frigid Minnesota and the searing heat of Somalia—this novel reports on both worlds without politicizing and without moralizing, allowing the reader to arrive at their own conclusions.

What was fascinating for me was that it read as an intense psychological study of very disparate personalities that, at the end, created an understanding and empathy for every single character. With what is really an economy of words, Smith shows a true complexity for each character’s actions. This is a doctoral thesis in understanding how motivations drive people. What’s even more remarkable is that we see four very different people with four entirely different goals and each one is carefully and expertly drawn. There are no “good” guys nor any “bad” guys per se. There are just people who do good things and people who do bad things, with each of the four performing both kinds of actions, but each, no matter what they may do is clearly drawn with not only a deftness rarely seen in but the best of fiction, but each a person driven by forces completely understandable.

Very good literature allows us to see into the hidden soul of one character. Literature that deserves the epithet of being great, allows us to see into the deepest recesses of more than one. All the Young Warriors gives us an unprecedented view of all four of the major characters. I’m sure there have been novels which have done this before, but I confess I can’t recall which ones those were, and that tells me perhaps that I haven’t yet read them. Perhaps I just imagine they’re out there…

But, I’m not imagining this one.

As a writer, I open books for two reasons. One, to be entertained and secondly—which is at least equal in importance to me—to learn how to be a better writer by what and how the author has crafted the work. This novel succeeded on both levels.

I simply cannot get over the characters Smith has created. What’s revealing about his craft is how he delivers each character—not through introspection or peeking into their minds, but mostly by their actions. That’s hard to do!

First, you have what at first glance appears to be the standard issue cop/detective in thrillers, Ray Bleeker. Quickly, however, he becomes much more than a version of the stereotypical veteran cop solving a crime or mystery. His motivation is powerful. He does what he feels he has to do because of the love of a woman and a sense of honor he feels due her memory. He knowingly sacrifices his future and his life for what he holds to be a just cause. His quest becomes noble and this alone transforms him and makes him different than many similar fictional characters. This is no “Jack Reacher” embued with a superman physique and supernatural physical skills, kicking ass ala a cartoon superhero. This is no “Sherlock Holmes” with a superior intellect. No “Virgil Flowers” with an entire and impressive state crime-fighting bureaucracy behind him. This is a solid detective who can handle himself physically but isn’t a superhero, able to vanquish a dozen ninja warriors, but just a better-than-average fighter who’s getting a bit long in the tooth. His detecting skills are not inborn in him by virtue of some detective “gene,” but have been acquired by years on the job and from intelligent observation gleaned from many cases. He’s kind of an Everyman and what distinguishes him is the level of love he holds for a woman and his child. He embodies what used to be known as “Yankee ingenuity.” He doesn’t own a bunch of power tools; he owns an inventive, practical mind. What distinguishes him from other popular detectives in fiction is that he has a character arc. He is a man who will be an entirely different person at the end of the story, unlike most series characters who remain largely unchanged by the struggle they go through.

The second major character, Mustafa Abdi Bahdoon, was utterly fascinating. Easily the most complex character in the cast. At one time a powerful gang leader, feared by friend and foe alike, he has long since walked away from his past and is living the “straight” life, working at a Target store. This, despite the knowledge that he might be murdered at any time by his former gang members. He’s of Somalia extract, but all he wants to do is be American, despite his violent background. He also is driven by love. The love of his son.

His son, Adem, is as complex as the others, and shows perhaps the biggest character arc of all. He begins as a college student who is somewhat popular, but possessed of a follower’s personality. He’s the dutiful child, who gets swept up unexpectedly in politics and a murder and ends up in Somalia as he flees a murder charge and prison time, and at first is idealistic about the cause he has joined, but soon discovers he has neither the firmness of belief in that cause that is necessary but that he’s pretty much a coward. He mostly remains a coward until near the end and through a series of events, he becomes a sort of Goebbels. Why Goebbels, you ask? Well, because that’s kind of what I was reminded of in this story—it could have been structured from a study in how two powerful Nazis became who they were. Adem is Goebbels and the last character…

Jibriil… is the “Hitler” character. Indeed, I kept thinking of Hitler as Jibriil moved through the pages. Not the finished-product-Hitler, whom most see in their minds’ eye, ruling over the Third Reich as the hob-booted despot he became, but the Hitler who was a failure as a painter and mostly a nobody until he found himself in the right place at the right time and took advantage of the situation. Jibriil is the young Hitler, at his late childhood and early rise to power. What is fascinating is that through Smith’s depiction of his character, it becomes clear how an insignificant nobody can emerge as a cruel tyrant like Mein Fuhrer when the planets align and the circumstances allow.

I may be the only one who looks at this novel this way, but I can’t help seeing these kinds of parallels. Whether Smith intended it or not, he’s created a case study in how otherwise ordinary folks, under the right circumstances, can become the Hitlers of the world and how the same thing can happen today. And perhaps is.

What is one of the most amazing things about this book is that every single one of the major characters undergoes a significant character arc. How in the hell does Smith do that?! That’s remarkable. In practical terms, that means this novel is perfect to be made into a movie. You’ve got not one, but four characters A-list actors would kill to play.

This is a brilliant book, possibly the best novel of the year. It's for sure in the top three or four. I've read more great books this year than I ever have--great time for top novels!

Blue skies,

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