I really hesitated before placing THE RETURN into any sort of genre fiction box. It certainly has thriller and adventure elements, but it frequently meanders into the cracks and valleys of life, love, friendship and family, before suddenly veering back onto the wild ride that I initially expected when I first picked up the book. Author Michael Gruber kind of sets his own storytelling agenda, and once I got over my own expectations of what constituted the shortest distance between the book’s beginning and end, things were just fine in this dark, frequently depressing, and occasionally humorous tale of where longstanding debts are put paid.
"Gruber slices up and down the strata of living and the complexity of relationships, all the while keeping the reader simultaneously entertained, thinking and cerebral."
There are three primary characters (and a whole bunch of secondary ones) in THE RETURN, all of whom are complex to varying degrees and memorable. Marder kicks things off. He is a freelance book editor who has just gotten the news that he has an inoperable cranial aneurysm, a brain buddy that is going to inconveniently burst on him at an indeterminate time in the future. He doesn’t tell anyone about his grim prognosis, not even his daughter Statch (Primary Number Two) or his best friend Skelly (Primary Number Three).
Instead, Marder talks vaguely about taking a long road trip and being out of touch for a bit. The road trip, it turns out, is to a remote area of Mexico where his late wife was born and raised, and where her estranged parents were murdered by a local drug lord. Marder is carrying around several buckets worth of guilt, all of which are related to his wife and her suicide, and his plan is to travel back to her homeland, scatter her ashes at her birthplace, and take out the drug lord before he becomes a member of the Choir Invisible. We learn quickly enough that Marder is capable of doing this. He has a skill set, acquired during service in Vietnam and honed in subsequent years, that is not ordinarily possessed by your garden variety book editor.
Marder begins his journey alone but is joined soon enough by Skelly, who is an enigmatic, entertaining rogue with a penchant for getting into trouble. Think of Hunter Thompson without impulse control, and you have a pretty good idea of what Skelly is like. Skelly and Marder have a long and complicated history that is gradually revealed over the course of THE RETURN via intermittent flashbacks. I will confess that I found the occasional interruptions during the course of the narrative to be vaguely irritating (your results may vary), but by the close of the book, I understood the reasons for them; even when he’s bugging you, Gruber knows what he's doing. Skelly is a good guy to have around when you are moving your entire life to Mexico and there are few people you can trust, even when you have a terminal diagnosis and thus possess a somewhat different view regarding mortality.
The duo is joined in due course by Statch, who takes it upon herself to track her father down and see what he is up to and against. Statch is a near genius who is involved in an MIT post-graduate study project that is on the verge of a major breakthrough --- thanks to her --- who is also training for a world class swimming competition. She leaves both endeavors to see what Marder is doing and gets far more than she anticipated, particularly when her dad, Skelly, and a crew of rural squatters make a last stand, outgunned and undermanned, against a Mexican gun cartel that Skelly has ripped off in a rather cavalier fashion.
So how does THE RETURN end? Gruber is still lobbing surprises at the reader during the last couple of pages, but this story is much more complex than a good guys vs. bad guys tale told in shades of gray. Gruber slices up and down the strata of living and the complexity of relationships, all the while keeping the reader simultaneously entertained, thinking and cerebral. It is deep and complex, and asks to be read slowly; you’ll be happy to oblige, once you get over your initial expectations over what you thought it was.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on September 6, 2013