I picked up Drew Magary’s novel The Hike on audiobook a while back because it was the Audible deal of the day and the concept sounded interesting. I listened to it shortly after I got it, and I was favorably impressed. Today I put it on again, just to see if it was as good as I remembered it, and yes, it really holds up.
I am deliberately not reading anything about the author or any of his social media posts (if he even has any) because I want to be able to talk about this book in a vacuum. I have my observations about this book as a work of fiction and if I read what the author has to say about it I will probably find out I am dead wrong.
That having been said, this is, in my opinion, a contemporary work of New Wave fiction and more than that, it’s a beautiful example of what I love about New Wave. So I am going to put off the moment when I find out that Mr. Magary either hates New Wave or has never heard of it.
This is a story about Ben. Ben is in his late 30s, he’s married, he has three children, he works as a buyer for some company–he deals with vendors and is pretty good at it, and that’s all we get to know about his work. It’s a paycheck, it’s not his life.
His wife is a nurse and he loves her, but he’s not really “in love” with her, and he hasn’t been for a while. His children–two boys and a girl–are important to him in a understated way, like the architectural supports for a bridge that you drive over every day but never really look at.
Then everything changes for Ben. On a routine business trip to meet with a supplier he takes a walk in the woods by his hotel and wanders out of the rational world into someplace else.
And here is where I start talking about why I call this book New Wave.
There is no explanation. There is no big “chronosynclastic infundibulum” moment, no “As you know, Dr. Frankenstein…” dialogue, no attempt to give the events a veneer of pseudoscience at all. Ben is on “the Path”. There is one rule–if you leave “the Path”, you will die. That is all that we need to know and with magnificent restraint, that is all that Drew Magary tells us.
What is on the path? Ben’s life. His past, his future, his present, in no particular order. This book is less of a character study and more of a character vivisection. It’s a metaphorical vivisection, and the metaphors are taken from popular culture–there are moments where Ben seems to be a character in a video game, others that seem to be inspired by role playing games, and still others that take their imagery from Saturday morning cartoons and comic books.
However, Magary manages to keep the tone deadly serious while running his protagonist through some very absurd scenarios, and that is one of those things that never looks as difficult as it is because on the rare occasions it is done right it always looks effortless.
In the spirit of Gateway Fantasy going back to The Wizard Of Oz, Ben realizes what is really important to him. His longing to return to his family is honest and sincere and it drives the story relentlessly. Even in the silliest moments there is a tragic edge of “you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.”
I can recommend this book. I think it works, and it works well. There are moments where I felt a particular conceit was drawn out too long, and I have to admit that the “almost ending” was unsatisfying–there is a section where he succumbs to the temptation to spell it all out that I personally think weakens the final sections. But he recovers from that and the real ending is very powerful.
As I said, I don’t know if this author considers himself a New Wave writer or if it’s just a case of parallel evolution and he happened to run across the same esthetic that guys like George Alec Effinger and Robert Sheckley used so powerfully in their fiction. But I advise checking out The Hike. Sadly, it’s published by Random Penguin, which means the Kindle version is priced higher than the hardback. But you might be able to get it from a library.