Joe Speedboat – what can I say? A great premise cleverly concealing a dull and drawn-out product. I thought I was onto to a winner with this one – a narrator who’s had a mysterious crippling accident, a stranger with a snappy name who likes to blow things up, and a town of bewildered bystanders. It’s compelling, you’ve got to admit. Frankie, the teenage narrator, emerges from a coma to find his hometown up in arms against this violent, unpredictable young interloper, who refuses to tell anybody his real name and has adopted the moniker ‘Joe Speedboat’. As Frankie gets stronger, rolling around town in his wheelchair using his one good arm, he worms his way into Joe’s inner circle, and great (and scary) things seem to be afoot. There’s a love-interest in the shape of PJ, the South African beauty who moves to town right after Joe, there’s Frankie’s psychotic brother Dirk, and there’s his burgeoning career (masterminded by Joe) as an arm-wrestler. Throw in an isolated Dutch town that’s soon to be entirely cut off from the world by a new motorway, and you’ve got all the ingredients for an explosive stew of drama and tension. And yet it never really coalesces. I started off enthralled, and by the end I was forcing myself to keep reading. I hate that.
So what’s the problem? The author, Tommy Wieringa, has no trouble building characters and setting a scene. Frankie’s well-drawn – he’s obsessive and nosy, a handicapped spy who fancies himself a ninja, someone who has to watch everybody else’s lives develop while he remains living in his parent’s shed, endless recording what’s happening around him in hundreds of notebooks, while nursing a long-standing crush on PJ. Joe, too, stands out – an inventive, quick-witted kid who turns to mechanics and (briefly) art after his father dies, he’s a schemer and a dreamer, but he’s detached from the people around him. He’s built up a protective identity – Joe Speedboat, the kid who blows things up – and he’s not letting anyone past that. Then there’s the town, Lomark, near the German border, a place that relies on its asphalt industry and that’s looking down the barrel of extinction as the Dutch road network threatens to cut it out of the transportation loop. Wieringa’s peopled it with bizarre characters like Joe’s African stepfather, and Frankie’s scrapyard-owner father. So we’ve got a clear and vivid world with oodles of quirky denizens, and yet it all goes wrong.
The problem for me was the plotting. The novel starts off with a bang (literally, as Joe blows off two of his own fingers in a botched explosion) and the reader is grabbed. How did Frankie end up in a coma? What will happen when he gets together with Joe? But the novel doesn’t build up to a dramatic crescendo; instead it ambles along, giving us vignettes of small-town life, character sketches, several plot lines that rise up and then sink out of view again. And it’s not that this is bad in itself – there’s nothing wrong with a slow meander through life – but the set-up is too tantalising, that I expected a whole different kind of book. So I guess that this could be just me – but still, it seems too low-key for the cast and the setting. The sustained storylines – who’ll hook up with PJ? What’s the deal with Joe, really? What happened to Frankie? – just couldn’t keep me interested. PJ might be pretty, but she’s bland on the page; Frankie’s accident was pretty mundane for it to have been kept back from the reader for a couple of hundred pages; and Joe? The big crunch for the Frankie/Joe/PJ triangle comes when Frankie and PJ find out Joe’s real name – they feel like they’ve betrayed him, but they also feel let down by him, like the knowledge of his crappy name has deflated his superhero image. This is probably the emotional core of the book – Frankie’s allegiances finally shift as he moves from under his school friend’s shadow. But it all hinges on a name – and as a catalyst, it’s a pretty poor one. It might not help that Joe’s real name isn’t one that translates into English, so maybe there’s a joke there that’s lost on me, but nevertheless, a whole novel building up to such a paltry reveal? It didn’t do much for me.
Any Cop?: If you like a meandering drift through small-town life, you might like it, but I thought it set up a bunch of interesting situations and then never delivered. Thumbs down.