The survivor Gregg Hurwitz Sphere 2012, pp 352 395
It’s a tradition: every summer in the western book-reading world, publishers bring out thrillers. The astute observer will note that the lists of ‘books to read on the beach’ have been filling up with crime, action and adventure over the years.
Now the publishers are importing these same books to India, and trying to popularise the newer thriller writers.
Your traditional Indian reader thinks of thrillers and lists out James Hadley Chase, Alistair Maclean, Frederick Forsyth, maybe Jeffrey Archer — all writers who have been consistent and been around for a long time. These are folks who have outlasted their contemporaries and are still doing so. Publishers need to create new sensations, though, so we have a new round of writers every couple of years.
These people have been writing for maybe 10 years, and are slowly building their reputations in Europe and the US, and are now being imported to India along with their backlists — Andy McDermott, Matthew Reilly, Andy McNab, and many more, including our current writer-under-review, Gregg Hurwitz.
Will Hurwitz make the cut and stand out? That remains to be seen. The Swedish brigade has set a high bar for new writers. The Survivor has its ups and downs, and probably wouldn’t make his reputation on its own.
It’s engrossing at the start. Nate Overbay is about to commit suicide. He’s a soldier returned from the Afghanistan war. An accident there left him shell-shocked, and he’s been steadily drifting apart from his wife and daughter. Now he finds he has Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a muscular degeneration that has no cure. To avoid the later effects, he has decided to jump off the ledge outside a bank’s window.
Suddenly the bank is attacked by armed goons. Figuring one death is as good as another, Nate decides to intervene and faces down the goons successfully. But it turns out the robbery was just a front for a different operation, and the goons tell Nate that he is now in bad trouble. The robbers, it turns out, were working for a Ukrainian gangster who wants to secretly retrieve the contents of a locker in this bank branch. Since Nate has disrupted this plan, he must now do their job.
From here, the book starts to fall into predictable lines — in fact, it seems like there’s a Bollywood scriptwriter at work. The boss of the gang threatens Nate with harm to his family unless Nate helps them. Nate goes over to his wife’s house to warn her, but is now given the responsibility of protecting her and his daughter.
The wife and daughter have grown distant from Nate, but our Bollywood scriptwriter knows exactly where that is going. Nate deliberately created the distance in order to cushion them from the shock of his terminal illness. That matter is going to resolve well. The daughter has an annoying boyfriend, but we know he’s going to be useful in some offbeat way later on. Various threats will happen, and they will be faced down by our hero.
Even worse, Nate has a ghostly friend who died in the war, and who appears as the voice of his conscience every now and then. You can almost hear him talking in Dr Shreeram Lagoo or A K Hangal’s voice, straight out of a ‘70s social movie.
All in all, it’s possible to read any number of chapters in the book, and then stop and predict what is going to happen in the next chapter. What keeps the book from being boring are two things: Hurwitz paces the story well, not lingering too long on any scene or idea — perhaps he got that from Bollywood too? — and the character of the villain.
This is, arguably, the ‘Survivor’ who fits the title better — Pavlo Shevchenko, a Ukrainian gangster who grew up in the streets and jails of Odessa, and finally escaped and settled in America. Pavlo has been through the worst of conditions and is now a merciless man bound only by his own honour.
The scene where Pavlo explains his history to Nate through a series of tattoos is one of the best in the book, and Hurwitz has done a fair amount of research into the mafia in Ukraine to come up with Pavlo’s background.
The climax, however, again seems too much like a standard action movie, and you just know how it will end. One interesting character cannot rescue this book.
Hurwitz has a good writing style — scene descriptions are well done, some dialogues are excellent, and the characters are explained well. And as mentioned above, the pacing of the story is good too.
Where he loses out is in the shallowness and predictability of the story. The work as a whole feels workshopped, with a bare -bones simple plot, rewritten until it’s long enough. Made into a movie, it might do well.