I wonder if Adam Mansbach spends half of his time explaining what his new novel, THE DEAD RUN, is and the other half explaining what it’s not. What it’s not is GET THE F**K TO SLEEP, the satirical parenting guide that sold millions of copies. What it is would be a dark thriller set on the no-man’s-land border of the United States and Mexico, one that will put you in the mind of a kind of posthumous collaboration between Carlos Castaneda and T. Jefferson Parker.
THE DEAD RUN begins as two separate, seemingly unrelated stories that slowly intersect and intertwine. The primary story, at least at first, concerns a well-intentioned gentleman named Jess Galvan, who is guilty of more than just simple bad judgment but is nonetheless likable. A somewhat reluctant career criminal, Galvan needs a big score to pay a retainer to an attorney for the purpose of recovering his daughter from her insane mother. He finds himself on the wrong side of Mexican prison cell bars after a job interview for a position of smuggling illegal contraband goes awry. His stay in stir is interrupted when he is abruptly brought to the depths of the prison where a legendary prisoner recruits him for a grisly delivery outside of the prison walls.
"THE DEAD RUN is an imaginative work, as innovative in its own way as Mansbach’s somewhat better known self-help volume."
That’s where Galvan suddenly finds himself, faced with a desert trek in the uneasy company of a handful of fellow prison inmates, including one who was trying to kill him hours before. The task that he must perform involves transporting the still-beating human heart of a young girl, which is strapped to Galvan’s back in a backpack, to a very dangerous and evil man. How is all of that for an image?
Meanwhile, a likable and decent Texas sheriff named Bob Nichols forms a somewhat unlikely but interesting alliance --- and a burgeoning relationship --- with a social worker cum cult deprogrammer who is trying to locate a teenage girl who may have run away from home. Her disappearance is a bit more nefarious than that, and as the two storylines start moving toward each other, THE DEAD RUN begins to take off into some unexpected directions. The book is a bit unsettling, and not only because of the subject matter.
Reading it is like stepping into one of those rooms in an amusement park funhouse where the floorboards keep sliding: it’s impossible to predict what's happening next. This is due in part to the infusion of the supernatural elements into the story, so that, as a result, nearly anything can happen. Still, the core of Mansbach’s story remains firmly rooted in this world. The result of this combination of factors is that I continued in my mind’s eye to see Galvan trudging through the desert, backpack faintly pulsating, long after I finished the book.
THE DEAD RUN is an imaginative work, as innovative in its own way as Mansbach’s somewhat better known self-help volume. Certainly the latter won’t inspire nightmares, as the former most certainly did for me. Sleep disturbance notwithstanding, reading THE DEAD RUN has prompted me to sample Mansbach’s other adult fiction titles, and most certainly to eagerly await his next effort, so dazzled was I by this dark, nasty jewel of a tale.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 4, 2013