The author of "Shelf Monkey", Corey Redekop, has a blog. One day I was looking at his profile where he listed some of his favorite books. "The Crash of Hennington" was one of them. Having never heard of it before I searched to find out what it was about. It intrigued me and I sought it out.
Here is a rundown on the plot from Amazon.CA:
The world of "The Crash of Hennington" is so strange that nobody pays much attention to the rhinoceros herd that occasionally rampages through town. Though ornery, the giant beasts - known collectively as The Crash - are more docile than the human citizens of Hennington, whose schemes ultimately cause much more wreckage than a few bent traffic signs. As a freewheeling mix of satire, social comedy, and science fiction, "The Crash of Hennington" recalls the wildest books of Tom Robbins and Kurt Vonnegut. In the colourful near-future scenario imagined by first-time author Patrick Ness, society is freshly rebuilt after an unspecified catastrophe. Hennington's benevolent leaders - Cora the mayor and Archie the local multi-millionaire - are ready for retirement and have carefully prepared the way for their successors. Naturally, things don't work out so smoothly, thanks in part to two men who do not have the town's best interests in mind: Arthur's son Thomas, who has amassed great power as pimp and drug dealer to Hennington's elite; and Jon Noth, a Mephistophelean fellow who's out to settle an old score nearly four decades after being dumped by Cora. As he tells his lackey, "I am not an average man, Eugene, and I don't mean that in a boastful way. In fact, it has often worked to my detriment, but I do know a few things. I'm not prepared to share that destiny just yet but know this, I am not mistaken, misled or delusional." But even these villains will get swept up in the madness that surges through Hennington like an angry rhino.
There are more characters involved. There is Luther, Arthur's adopted son that is heir apparent to his business empire. There is Max Latham, the deputy mayor who is on the fence about running for mayor himself. There is Cora's husband, Albert. There is also Jacki and Peter, both employees of Thomas' at the golf club, and employees of his "entertainment" business. Also, Father Jarvis, the pastor of a local church, and Theophilius Velingtham, a rather zealous opponent of the pastor. Then Maggerty "The Rhinoherd", a strange outcast that for many years has followed the crash where ever it goes. Then in minor roles, there is Eugene, who becomes Jon's assistant, and Talon, would is Max's daughter and great advocate of the crash.
As you can see, there is a huge cast of characters. They all play an important role at some point of the story. All the story lines come together or are effected by the events that unfold. For someone doing this with a debut novel, one would think the author was completely nuts. But Mr. Ness does a good job in keeping each character separate from all the others, deep enough to make them interesting and poignant to the story, and to make them more then just a vessel to play out parts of the plot. They aren't the strongest bunch you will me in literature, and Ness does show some clumsiness at times, which made it hard from me at the beginning of the book to keep track of everyone. But the eventual outcome is positive.
The title of the book serves two purposes. Not only to focus on the herd of rhinos and the oddity of their situation, but as a metaphor of where the city is headed. This second doesn't quite come into focus as quickly, but given the story and character, it shows Ness' clever deftness as a writer. (For those, like me prior to reading this, that don't know, the proper term for a herd of rhinoceros is crash.)
One other issue that was annoying at times was the lack of quotations. Like Charles Frazier, Ness uses a hyphen before someone says something. Fortunately if there was some explanation that followed, he started a new paragraph, unlike Frazier who would use a comma and leave you wondering what was being said by a character and what was narration. Ness also relied a lot on quick dialog in many chapters, and even when it was only two people conversing, it was hard to keep track of who was saying what. Sometimes though that worked to an advantage for art's sake, as it was more important for the message to be gleaned, and the rest was performance and build-up.
One aspect that I found myself liking, and it was a surprise to me, was the lack of background information. Hennington is part of some country or some government that as the description above states, has gone through some "unspecified catastrophe." There is talk of The Gentleman's War and a fear former enemy. There is talk of the "recent histories" and how the old histories were destroyed. Normally I would want more information. I enjoy the world building and history of these great universes that some authors create. But with this story, with the great scope of plot and huge cast of characters, along with the well placed writing style and prose, this vagueness and brief snippets of the past works very, very well.
This can be a rather challenging read with all the things that Ness has pulled into it: sex, drugs, politics, religion, big business, family drama, romance, mystery, fantasy, science fiction, and surrealism. But even with this boat load of possible tripping hazards, I found it rather rewarding in the end. Sure, it suffered a little bit from "debut novel blues" and for the author biting off just a bit more then he could chew. But he admirably put together a rather strange and inventive, and most importantly, entertaining novel.