First, beware that spoilers lurk here.
Many moons back, in a review of the Clint Eastwood film “In the Line of Fire,” the L.A. Weekly noted that only in America, could you have a political thriller bereft of politics.
I paraphrase (nor can I remember the specific reviewer) since, shockingly, it’s nearly been two decades since that film came out, but the observation has always stuck with me. In that movie -- for anyone unfamiliar -- John Malkovich is an assassin out to get the President, and Eastwood is the repentant JFK-era Secret Service agent who gets a second chance to keep history from derailing. But the Malkovich character doesn’t have any particular agenda in the movie -- he just wants to kill the President because he’s, well, bad.
I was reminded of that particular review more than once when reading Mike Lupica’s new mid-grade/early YA thriller, Hero. Now, I’m a Lupica fan, when it comes to his oeuvre, having enjoyed, in particular, some good nights reading his baseball saga Heat aloud to my own in-house Little Leaguer.
This superhero-themed tale starts out promisingly enough, with a “first person” narrative, as Tom Harriman, the father of our eventual titular hero, Zach, is in Eastern Europe, nabbing a Radovan Karadzic/ Slobodan Milosevic war criminal for trial -- one guesses -- in the West.
In this prologue -- think a James Bond pre-title sequence -- we learn that Tom has certain “powers.” He’s not quite Superman, but he seems to be a tad more than Batman, based on his ability to leap multi-story distances and to somehow transport himself across rooms, as needed, in close combat situations; a kind of localized teleportation.
Like Batman, he’s still mortal though -- and the plane he pilots back with War Prisoner on board is scarcely indestructible: he never makes it home to his family’s Manhattan co-op. And then we switch to third person, and we meet Zach, understandably grieving for the loss of his father.
Zach was unclear about what, exactly, his father did -- other than work as a special operative for the President. But what kind of President? And what kind of operations? The President has a cranky, secretive vice president, but we’re never quite allowed to his politics, or the actual worldview of current administration. What sort of operation did Zach’s father give his life for?
As Zach ponders these questions, he finds a growing power within himself. Not to move on in spite of great loss -- though that’s there, too -- but literal “powers,” like the kind his dad had. Apparently, these powers come “online” when they’re passed on, bequeathed -- and/or when the recipient is fully into adolescence.
Zach has time for such pondering and exploration because his father did share another trait with Batman, or at least, Bruce Wayne: Great wealth. And so, the bully Zach encounters is at a fairly tony private school, his weekend afternoon getaways consist of courtside tickets to the Knicks, and when needed, there are even private cars.
Okay -- so Batman is one of my favorite mythic heroes, and his easy wealth never got in the way of a good story, and swept aside initial questions like: “Why didn’t young Bruce wind up in an orphanage?”
In fact, Zach’s father was at an orphanage, and his mysterious background -- before the successes on the football field at Harvard, and as a government operative -- while touched on in one of the books later reveals, is never fully examined.
Which is really the main frustration with the tale: There are glimpses of ideas, and plotlines, but it feels like Lupica is setting up for another series, and the main payoffs will come in later books. For example, the world’s forces of darkness are simply known, colloquially, as “The Bads.”
But who are the The Bads? Religious fundamentalist terrorists? Rogue military factions? Corporate overlords? An agglomeration of sociopaths? Any alliance of convenience between any such factions? The book never makes it clear.
There is, however, an assassination attempt of a charismatic Senator, while making a speech in Central Park. Zach’s mom, to bury her own sorrows, has thrown herself into the Senator’s campaign (the Senator being a close family friend). Because he’s doing well in California and New York, we might infer a certain “Blue state” outlook, but this is never made clear. Nor are we sure if he’s running against the incumbent President, in a primary, or for his own party’s nomination, as a rival, in the general.
It would matter, because it might say a lot about who this particular “Bad” is, and why he wanted to kill the Senator. And when we find out the Senator had intended to pick Zach’s dad as his running mate, it might explain even more.
We know that Lupica has his own politics -- he went after Cheney, et al in his columns -- but he doesn’t bring any of it to bear here, so we’re left with a political thriller devoid of politics, and thus, of motivation.
Given Lupica’s fondness for his characters, maybe he’ll let that happen in subsequent installments. The action’s already lively -- now it’s a question of tethering it to the real world. Where, hero powers aside, this book is striving to be set.
A longer version of this review will be forthcoming in the L.A. Review of Books