The problem that I have with reviewing I AM PILGRIM isn’t my usual one --- how to begin --- but rather how to finish. Before I even had the book in hand, I had a couple of folks recommend it to me in the strongest possible terms, which is what I will do for you as well before we’re done here. They also understated their cases, but can be forgiven. This is a mammoth book, one that criss-crosses the world and goes back and forth over a couple of decades within the course of several hundred pages, with side journeys off the wild night’s ride of the two main plots.
Let me begin with a warning: once you start reading this book, you won’t want to stop. There’s no good place to do so, either. I tried to go to sleep a couple of times one night but found myself wondering, as the limerick goes, who was going to do what to whom, and succumbed to reading a few more pages. Until I was through. I doubt that your results will differ.
"This is a mammoth book, one that criss-crosses the world and goes back and forth over a couple of decades within the course of several hundred pages... I AM PILGRIM is the must-read book of this summer."
The Pilgrim of the title uses a bunch of different names during the course of I AM PILGRIM, such as Scott Murdoch, Jude Garrett, Richard Gibson and Peter Campbell (yes!), among others, for a very good reason. Pilgrim is summoned in a consulting capacity to a rundown hotel room in New York where a woman’s body has been discovered. All distinguishing and identifiable features of the victim have been burned off with acid; the room has been washed down with an industrial-strength antiseptic; and all of her teeth have been pulled and disposed of. We gradually learn who Pilgrim is, and why he has been brought in as a consultant. The story is told in anything but a linear fashion; Pilgrim is an expert criminologist who does not exist, and also has been the titular head of an off-the-books government agency, a sort of Internal Affairs Bureau that oversees the NSA and CIA, administering a swift and certain unapologetic rough justice for betrayal.
When events overtake the agency and is shut down, Pilgrim moves restlessly from place to place, concealing his identity and maintaining himself as a moving target against the enemies he has made throughout the world. He is pressed back into service, however, when an Islamic fanatic known as the Saracen devises a plot to bring the United States --- and, by extension, Israel --- to the ground. It is made clear that this event took place several years in the past, and is something that only a handful of people knew of. Clearly, Pilgrim stopped the Saracen; otherwise, he would not be around to tell the tale that he narrates so well here. What is not immediately obvious, though, is how Pilgrim does so, which is not revealed until toward the end of the book.
And the murder that opens I AM PILGRIM? Oh, we learn a thing or two about that as well, and a whole lot about Pilgrim, as relayed with side-trips short and long into his past, stories of spy tradecraft and rough men who stand ready in the night while we sleep peacefully. Even when author Terry Hayes brings the narrative to a screeching halt while Pilgrim goes off on the equivalent of a “hey, that reminds me…” tangent, the book remains fascinating and riveting from first sentence to last paragraph. Oh, and that last paragraph. It’s a beautiful one, so much so that it almost eclipses all that has gone before.
Before I go, let’s talk about Hayes for a moment. If you don’t necessarily recognize his name, you know his work in film, which includes such classics as Payback and the iconic The Road Warrior. But I AM PILGRIM is in a class all its own. I am not entirely sure that it’s fiction, to be honest; it reads more like a memoir, and there is an important element in it --- one that kind of kickstarts the book --- that seems to hint that perhaps Hayes is standing in place of one of those rough men I mentioned earlier. It’s either a testimony to his imagination and talent as a writer or my own imagination. Or insight. We’ll probably never know. But what I do know is that I AM PILGRIM is the must-read book of this summer.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 30, 2014