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WHAT IS TIME TO A PIG?
by John Straley
Soho, February 2020
255 pages
$27.95
ISBN: 1641290846


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Most thrillers involving the imminent detonation of a nuclear warhead are driven by a ticking-clock urgency. Since John Straley likes to break the rules, he dismantles the ticking clock in the prologue, as we're introduced to the mouse that saved the world. She's found something strange and tasty In a dump outside Cold Storage, Alaska, but as she burrows around she comes across a strange creature with a single blinking eye. What exactly this means, we don't yet know, but in the opening chapter we learn the mouse has died a circumstance that's sad for her, but "not for the human beings in this story, most of whom experienced life as a kind of hallucination, unstuck from traditional time as a result of being kept in cages, where nothing happened according to their own will."

Welcome to the Ted Stevens High Security Federal Penitentiary, a high-tech mechanical maze where prisoners are controlled remotely and often drugged, and one of its inhabitants, a man called Gloomy Knob, who is incarcerated for kidnapping his mother and killing his sister. He feels bad about it, so doesn't resent being locked up in a high-tech prison for life, even though he can't clearly remember his crimes. In fact, he can't remember much of anything. He just wants a prison job that takes him outdoors to do manual labor at a neighboring construction site where a new women's prison is going up. Prison labor including the human work that undergirds computer systems - has become profitable in post-war America since the war with North Korea.

America won, of course, but not until after North Korea fired a burst of nuclear warheads that didn't detonate but set off a global rush to find the missing nukes scattered across Alaska. One day as Gloomy tends a trash fire, he's rescued or kidnapped, depending on your perspective by a couple who are convinced he knows where one of the missiles is, the one that's about to detonate under Cold Storage. He doesn't know what they're talking about, but being yanked out of his numbed routine has caused some memories (or are they hallucinations?) to surface.

It can be confusing to be set down in this world where enhanced interrogation techniques involve mind games and memory-altering drugs, pieces of the nation's history have been recycled (there's a new Ghost Dance Movement being suppressed by the authorities, for instance) and characters walk in and out of the pages without explaining themselves. (If you think your confusion comes from not having read Straley's previous novel, COLD STORAGE, don't worry; it probably wouldn't help. The hallucinatory narrative style matches our confused era.) Parallelling Gloomy's adventures, we learn about his mother Nix and his dying father Clive who own a bar in Cold Storage, and eventually we learn what actually happened when Gloomy's sister was killed. But along the way it's a jumbled collage of memories, and for Gloomy it's never clear which are real and which are drug-induced hallucinations and neither are we. But the reader willing to go along with the unconventional narration will be rewarded by sharp commentary on our times and equal parts poetry and offbeat humor.

As for nuclear annihilation, don't worry: the mouse has saved us from our human stupidity.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, January 2020

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