Niketown is the first fiction novel by Outlaw Vern, the popular internet film critic. The book is a unique mix of crime thriller and social satire, and it follows a newly released convict named Carter Chase as he tries to adjust to a world he barely recognises; a world where everybody is glued to their phones, all the CD and bookstores are long gone and where gravestones now come with sponsored advertisements. Soon he’s investigating his brother’s disappearance and deciding whether or not he should seek revenge on the gang that got him sent down. All of this plays out in ways you’d never expect.
What makes Niketown stand out is that it takes a familiar genre – the crime thriller – and twists it around on itself. There’s a certain way a story like this is expected to play out, but Niketown never takes the obvious route. In the normal course of events Carter would seek bloody revenge, or be drawn back into his life of crime for one last big score. What happens here? Well, when he’s not trying to find his brother he spends his time looking for work, befriending his hippie neighbour or accidentally starting an art movement when he paints over a garish advert, inspiring the rest of the city to do the same. The book subverts expectations at nearly every turn, and not just for the sake of being clever. Some readers may be disappointed that it doesn’t pay off in traditional ways, but it makes for a refreshing change of pace.
The crime parts of the book are never taken all that seriously anyway. For example Carter wasn’t sent to jail for robbing a bank or shooting someone; it was for stealing some rare special edition sneakers from a Nike store. His former partners are depicted as a bunch of losers, and it feels like the true reason Carter isn’t interested in vengeance is that it would just be a waste of energy. The disappearance of Carter’s brother is what drives the book and, while it’s an intriguing mystery, it can lack a little urgency. Carter spends a lot of his time just sort of hanging out at places his brother used to go, which becomes pretty repetitive after a while. Thankfully, the eventual payoff to this storyline is worth the wait, and ties neatly into the themes of the story.
The writing has a nice lean quality to it, and Vern brings a lot of his trademark humour to the story. It’s full of great scenes and dialogue, with standouts such as Carter’s messy showdown with a man who refuses to clean up after his dog in a park. But most of the book’s humour comes from its satirical elements, and Carter’s bemused reactions to the world around him. The future it depicts only feels slightly exaggerated from our own. The concept of adverts on gravestones may sound silly, but the book makes it feel disturbingly plausible. Pointless fads like wearing oversized sunglasses come and go in an instant, and selling out is the done thing. At one point a corporation tries to exploit Carter’s anti-ad statement by trying to turn it into an ad campaign. The mix of thriller and satire can make for an uneasy tone at times, but it works remarkably well for the most part.
There are other themes explored later on in the book that get into slight spoiler-ish territory, but at its heart Niketown is about a man who feels badly out of place in the modern world. He doesn’t understand it, and he doesn’t really want to. Carter makes for a complex protagonist. He’s smart, funny and honourable, but he’s also kind of lazy and a bit of a dick. He tries to avoid fights, but he does seem to enjoy them when they happen. He admits to himself that he only turned to crime because he liked the easy money, and he wonders why he was never able to be “normal” like everyone else. His struggle to find his place in the world is the book’s central theme, and it gets resolved in a surprisingly poignant way.
Niketown is a funny, ambitious first novel and while its mixture of hard boiled crime thrills and satire may not always gel perfectly, it’s always an engaging read. And if you’re in the mood for a story that plays with your expectations in an intelligent way, seek it out.