The Last Policeman

Posted: October 5, 2012 in Braak, reviews
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J. C. Watts once pretty accurately described “character” as “what you do when nobody’s looking.”  In his new novel, The Last Policeman, Ben Winters makes the equally compelling argument that it’s what you do when doing it doesn’t matter.

Hank Palace is a policeman in the not-too-distant future, after civilization has discovered that there’s an asteroid on the way, ready to wipe out life as we know it.  There’s some debate about the possibility of surviving an impact, particularly for people who might be on the other side of the world from it, but no real question that billions of people will die, and society will be unrecognizably transformed, to say the very least.  All of this casts a definite pall over Palace’s first real chance at solving a murder, as he repeatedly confronts the question – asked by his fellow policemen, by the DA, by the handful of people who haven’t quit their jobs yet and chosen to spend the last six months of life in hedonistic glory somewhere – “why bother?”

There’s something very daring about a book that takes an unflinching look at the inevitability of death – and the structure of that kind of book, that posits an essential meaninglessness to every day action and then asks the central question of The Last Policeman, that “why bother?” over and over has always struck me as something particularly interesting to atheists; the need for meaning, after all, is universal, and atheism especially eschews the notion that there’s an over-riding meaning to the universe.  It’s probably not a surprise, then, that the philosophy through which Palace’s investigation takes him, doesn’t really say all that much about religion.  There are a few religious characters, who explain that their devout Catholicism is the reason why they haven’t committed suicide, but for the most part the answer that Palace seems to find to this abiding existential dilemma is a kind of secular version of the old-fashioned Protestant Work Ethic:  do your job right, because doing your job right is the only right thing to do.

Winters’ prose is lucid and dreamy, and he does such a fine job of evoking a sense of overwhelming, hopeless dread – he describes the mood of the city as “…that of the child who isn’t in trouble yet, but knows he’s going to be.  He’s up in his room, waiting…” – that it’s easy to not worry about how practically realistic is the world he’s created.  Is this really what would happen if we all knew that civilization was about to be eradicated?  Well, who knows?  Winters’ mood is well-realized enough to be plausible, and it permits a hazy, surreal tour through a culture that really seems to be in shock after just having received its terminal diagnosis.

But while The Last Policeman is a good novel, and it has all the pieces necessary to be an enduring classic in the mode of On the Beach (which inspiration it not-so-slyly references), it’s not quite a great novel.  The mystery that drives it seems almost cursory in its familiar form, replete with red herrings (one-third and two-thirds of the way through, as usual), femme fatale, last-minute fridging of a female character, innocence revealed to be corrupt, &c.  The ostentatiously square main character (he doesn’t smoke, drink, do drugs, swear, or like it when his sister swears; he only likes acoustic Bob Dylan) feels not painfully underdeveloped, necessarily, but in some ways just the wrong sort of character to lead a story like this.  Palace isn’t exactly a new kid still brimming with a naïve commitment to justice, and he’s not an old, hard-bitten detective who just keeps doing his job because it’s all he knows; with the exception of one moment of anger over a cup of coffee, and the occasionally drifting back to thoughts of his parents, Palace really just doesn’t seem to think about anything except policework,  which is a fine enough characteristic for a policeman under normal circumstances, but it robs the story of some of its emotional punch when it’s apparently so easy for the protagonist to not be bothered with the sorts of things that are bothering everyone else.

As is often the case with noirish, first-person narratives, it’s mostly the other characters who are the most intriguing – Naomi, who wants to write one good poem before the world ends; Medical Examiner Dr. Fenton who, when asked why she still works as an ME instead of going off to do what she’s always wanted, replies “I am doing what I always wanted”; Detective Culverson, who is meticulously-dressed every day for work, which seems to be an even more telling detail than just showing up for work in the first place.

There are other questions – like whether or not locking someone up in prison to wait out the last six months of existence, even if it’s for murder, really is justice, that are touched on but never really explored; though it’s probably reasonable to have excluded a lot of investigation into whether or not prison really is reformative and the value of punitive justice, the half-attempt nags in that interstitial “if you didn’t really care about it, what’s it doing in here?” zone.

There’s something about art these days that seems to me to place too high a priority on hope.  I know hope is a big deal, and everyone loves it, and Neil Gaiman seemed to indicate that it was the most important thing imaginable in Sandman, but I don’t buy it generally, and I don’t buy it here.  It seems to me that it privileges narrative — because what, after all, is hope without narrative? — above the genuine grappling with the human experience. When staring down the face of death, I’m not sure that the best thing always IS to imagine that there might be a way out. I don’t really think it’s true that the only thing that makes existence bearable is a belief that the end isn’t as inevitable as it seems, and I think The Last Policeman in the end (it’s the first part of a trilogy so I might have to see where it goes) doesn’t quite have the backbone that it probably needed.

Still, for all its flaws, The Last Policeman is a tense, moody read, that brings about the quiet, reflective refreshment that one can sometimes find with despair.  It’s not the unflinching, tragic masterpiece it could have been – in the narrative’s stare-down with the inevitability of death, it’s the story that blinks before the end – but still worth the read as the weird, gloomy genre novel that it is.

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