It’s hard to top a real-world book. By that I mean a book that features (relatively) ordinary people, with ordinary concerns and ordinary lives, where you read about the characters and think, “S/he is just like ----!” When you find these types of books in the thriller genre, the story more often than not concerns what happens when one or more of the characters reach their tipping point. It might be a singular action that propels the plot, but it is something in their past or personality makeup that provides the rocket fuel. Such is the case with THE WILD ZONE, Joy Fielding’s latest work.
The plot is as easy to follow as it is hard to put down. The book takes its name from a (fictitious) South Miami Beach bar where the action begins with a bet. The wager is placed among three guys: half-brothers Will and Jeff Rydell, and Tom Whitman, who served with Jeff in Afghanistan. That is the extent of their commonality. Will and Jeff are irrevocably jealous of each other. Jeff, a personal trainer, is (to put it bluntly) a babe magnet. Though he is in a live-in relationship with the extremely hot Kristen, a bartender at The Wild Zone, Jeff is not above straying or even bringing other women home for a threesome, a situation that Kristen accepts.
Will envies his older brother’s easy way with the ladies, seemingly unaware that Tom is jealous of Will’s favored status in the family as well as his intellect, which is earning him a doctorate at Princeton. Tom, a misfit whose temper and impulsiveness earned him a dishonorable military discharge, is jealous of both men. Stuck in a dead-end job with a wife and two children, his behavior is predictable only to the degree that when he has a number of choices, he will always pick the wrong one.
Suzy Bigelow is the smoking hand grenade that is tossed into this 30-gallon barrel of kerosene. Sitting by herself in the bar, the attractive, sad-looking woman becomes the object of the trio’s wager. The bet is simple: Who, among the three of them, can seduce her first? Suzy’s initial pick of one of the men rankles the pride of the other two. What none of them know, at least initially, is that Suzy is married to Dr. David Bigelow, a radiologist at a Miami hospital. David, who is equal parts possessive and jealous, rains physical, mental and emotional abuse down on Suzy daily.
When Will, Jeff and Tom learn about this, they each react in a different way, even as they are aiming toward the same result, which doesn’t look good for any of them. Suzy has secrets of her own, as well as a plan: she sees a way out of the life that has become a nightmare. There is a climax, and an ending, to the novel, and by the time the dust settles and the smoke clears, you’ll be shocked.
THE WILD ZONE covers a lot of the territory that Jason Starr has examined in his amazing string of stand-alone works, so his fans will find much to love here, as will Fielding’s own legion of readers. While the concept of the “angry, out-of-control war veteran” as a foil in thrillers has been overused by this point, Fielding’s pacing, straight-ahead plotting, erotic vignettes and multiple story bombshells make THE WILD ZONE one of 2010’s must-reads.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 24, 2011