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Spotlight on: Red by Jack Ketchum

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Red by Jack Ketchum Jack Ketchum, Red

"You don't tug on Superman's cape,
You don't spit in the wind,
You don't pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger,
And you don't mess around with Jim.
" -- Jim Croce

Jim Croce had it mostly right, but he left out one important thing: you don't mess around with a man's dog. Av Ludlow spends a lot of time alone, his main companion being his faithful old dog, Red -- a gift from his late wife. The only one of his children he speaks about (or to) is his married daughter Allie -- and she lives in another state.

One day, Ludlow is out fishing with Red, minding his own business, when three local boys -- Danny McCormack, his brother Harold, and their friend Pete Daount -- decide to give him trouble for no good reason, attempting to rob him at gunpoint. Ludlow keeps his cool, but when he doesn't have what they see as enough money for their effort, Danny kills Red with a shotgun blow to the head. This starts Ludlow on a pursuit of retribution that never goes the way I expected it to. And a novel that can surprise me is one that I instantly admire.

The cover of the Leisure paperback edition that forms the basis of this review led me to believe that Red was going to be a vigilante revenge tale in the style of Death Wish, with each offender getting his in turn, and blood being spilled and shells being fired in a pattern of gore that would satisfy any extreme horror buff. But Jack Ketchum has somewhat loftier ambitions. At first, Ludlow only wants an apology. It's when he doesn't get that and decides to pursue legal matters, but the McCormacks and Daounts refuse to cooperate, that things start to get ugly.

I must admit that I was originally disappointed when I realized that events were not going to go the way I had envisioned -- after all, that was why I had bought the book in the first place. But Ketchum's prose skill had me bending to his will soon enough. Any reader who has ever loved a dog will immediately empathize with Ludlow's plight, but Ketchum knows his readership well enough to not lay it on too thick. At the same time, he comments on multi-generational relationships, the struggles of family, and the benefits of long-standing friendships. Plus, he throws a little unexpected romance into the mix.

(Regarding the style, Red has to be the first book I've ever read that seems to suffer from a distinct lack of punctuation. Most authors are quite liberal with their commas, sowing them wantonly throughout the piece, but Ketchum appears to be hoarding his for the duration. I was generally able to suss out what was being said, but a sentence with several dependent clauses needs something to set them off from each other. Eventually, I got used to the style but, every so often, a particularly stubborn sentence would take me right out of my narrative zen.)

Since the novel only runs a little over 200 pages, also included in this printing, in order to fill out the pages and give us a little more for our money -- the publishers of Graham Masterton's Trauma could have taken a page from that playbook -- is a bonus Jack Ketchum novella, "The Passenger." Originally published in Night Visions 10, "The Passenger" is more of the rat-a-tat fiction I was expecting of Red. When her car breaks down, defense attorney Janet Morris gets picked up on the side of the road by an old high school acquaintance and becomes embroiled in a set of circumstances, and with a bunch of others characters, that are worse than anything she ever faced in a courtroom. To say that I never saw any of it coming is an understatement. After a while, I even stopped trying to guess what was going to happen and just let myself go with the flow. These are some damn crazy people. The ending seems a little forced, but "The Passenger" is a great companion piece to the novel, offering two sides of a decidedly unpredictable author.

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