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A Review of The Revisionists: A good story, well told.

Oct 22, 2012 in Books, Guest Posts

This week, Mulholland Books celebrates the publication of the paperback edition of Thomas Mullen’s THE REVISIONISTS, a Paste magazine Best Book of the Year, and the novel CNN.com calls “a compelling and complex page-turner” and “a paranoid thriller for the post-9/11 age.”

Read on for New York Times bestselling author Michael Koryta’s take on the book, and check back later in the week for a look at the bonus content for reading groups included in the new edition.

There are writers whose work you love to read, and writers whose work you love to read…but also make you mad with envy. The latter, I believe, comes at an intersection of talent and bravery. When the author’s narrative gifts and honed skills make you think damn, I wish I’d written that, and his or her choices makes you think damn, I wish I had the nerve to try something like this. Those writers stand out not just because of enormous literary abilities, but because it’s clear why they’re writing: for love of story.

I can create a list of writers who hit that intersection of talent and bravery regularly (Stewart O’Nan and Jess Walter rise swiftly to mind) but it’s a short one. Thomas Mullen is certainly on that list. Most of us talk about pushing our boundaries while we stay in a relatively tight space. We’ll venture from wall to wall, maybe, but we ain’t kicking them down and crossing the neighbor’s lawn. There’s a literary comfort zone at play, and in his fantastic third novel, THE REVISIONISTS, Thomas Mullen demonstrates that his literary comfort zone is not bound by genre…or place…or time. Tom demonstrates so damn many things, in fact, that were he not a genuinely good guy I’d start to hate him.

Coming off two brilliant historical novels – THE LAST TOWN ON EARTH is one of my favorite books of the past several years, and THE MANY DEATHS OF THE FIREFLY BROTHERS is every bit as good – Mullen decides to forsake the past for the future in THE REVISIONISTS. Or does he? While Zed is an agent from the future, sent to ensure that a Dystopian existence does not come off the rails if left in the hands of humans from the past, (well, present…are you starting to understand why this book would be so damn hard to write well? Trust me, the narrative flow is a lot smoother than this review), the weight of history hangs over the story at all times, so that just as the action and intrigue are pulling you forward, you’re pulling back to consider how we got here, and what it means.

Want to know if the story will engage you or if it’s just a bunch of pretty writing hung on a fascinating intellectual concept? I’ll let you tell me. Here are a few lines from the opening chapter:

“I saw a young woman carrying her toddler, a little black girl in a pink sweater, her hair braided with white beads. Residue from cotton candy encrusted the girl’s lips, and I thought to myself, She’s two, maybe three. I wanted to know her name, look her up in my databases, see if by any chance she would be one of the survivors…The girl smiled at me and waved. Her mother never noticed, never turned around, and after they reached an intersection I made myself stop. It doesn’t make any difference, I told myself. She’ll likely die, or, if she’s lucky, she won’t – yes, if she’s lucky, she’ll get to grow up in one of the most violent periods the world has ever known.

I waved back, helpless as she was.”

Got you yet? If not, please FedEx me the heart-shaped stone that resides in your chest. I would like it for my collection.

If you want plot, rest assured, you’ve come to the right place. Zed’s background, skill set, mission and progressive challenges are the stuff of great spy novels, with that added twist of sci-fi, and everything is anchored in a Washington D.C. setting that is closer to the realism of a George Pelecanos version of our capital than it is to the convenient montage used in so many fate-of-the-world thrillers. As is the case in any good novel, though, the book begins and ends with character, and Mullen’s creations are familiar and empathetic, coming time and again to questions of the deepest humanity: if we could cleanse prejudice by cleansing the linkages – ethnicity, faith, culture, family – that inspire divisions, what have we gained and at what cost?

Call it what you’d like – a literary-reader’s thriller, a thriller-reader’s literary novel – but I don’t have much interest in attempting to label this book, and one of the great pleasures of reading it was in the realization that Mullen has even less interest. It’s geared to no one and nothing but the story, and the beautiful writing, mind-bending plot, and moral complexity make it one of those truly rare finds: a good story, well told. A reason to read. Mullen’s books seem to have permanent residence on “Best of the Year” lists, and I expect you’ll see THE REVISIONISTS on several this December. Do yourself a favor and get to it first.

Michael Koryta (pronounced ko-ree-ta) is the author of many novels, some of which have won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Great Lake Books Award, and St. Martin’s Press/PWA Best First Novel prize, while also earning nominations for the Edgar, Quill, Shamus and Barry awards. In addition to winning the Los Angeles Times prize for best mystery, his novel Envy the Night was selected as a Reader’s Digest condensed book. His work has been translated into nearly twenty languages. A former private investigator and newspaper reporter, Koryta graduated from Indiana University with a degree in criminal justice. He currently lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Bloomington, Indiana. Connect with him on Facebook.

1 Responses »

  1. Mullen spoke at SIBA and I found him fascinating. It sounds like his book is too!

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