The Ultimate Rush, Joe Quirk

St. Martin’s, 1998, 374 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-96902-3

If I’m forced to mention only one element that can transform an average thriller into a good one, it would be speed. Pacing, rhythm; call it how you want, but a novel that moves can be forgiven many things that would otherwise sour a book that just doesn’t go anywhere.

The Ultimate Rush begins with a solid, exhilarating demonstration of speed, as our protagonist battles the treacherous streets of San Francisco to make a delivery… on rollerblades. Heroic maneuvers, near-death experiences, fast hip lingo and limpid writing make this intro one of the best since, ironically enough, the similar opening of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.

The rest of the novel eventually slows down, but in a few subsequent pages, we’re introduced to a protagonist who seems to embody coolness. Pierced narrator Chet Griffin isn’t only a blader, but he’s also an ex-hacker and a punk rock groupie with an unwholesome fascination for a lesbian friend of his. His new job as an elite courier, however, soon -very soon!- sends him rolling straight to various underworld elements, who quickly become highly unpleasant when they suspect him of peeking in the packages…

As a novel, The Ultimate Rush initially lives up to its title. The novel alternates between terrific chase sequences and hilarious slice-of-life scenes; it’s very difficult not to like Chet and his merry band of friends. When, in mid-book, love strikes and we’re treated to a gratuitous sex scene (“Do me like a straight girl!”, etc. [P.206]), well, it’s like seeing two old deserving friends finally getting together. Quirk has a knack for describing memorable characters, and our attachment to them goes a long way to make us like the book.

Quirk can’t resist being cooler than thou, though, and sometimes bites off more than he can chew. Yes, his taste in music is cool and impeccable (bands and album names are casually dropped to show off) but while I’m no authority on rollerblading, his hacking sequences are a bit off. They reprise, albeit with some skill, the usual cliché that gifted people can break in anywhere with only a few hours’ worth of work. Fortunately, there’s some hand-waving and not a little help from various virtual friends, but still… At least this gives form to one of the coolest deep-hacking scenes since Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. (On the other hand, well, everyone will easily guess the real identity of the cyber-antagonist chapters before it’s finally breathlessly revealed to us.) Realistic, accurate and carefully researched? Er, no.

Technical quibbles aside, though, what really harms the book is a steady lessening of tension in the last hundred pages. The ending, which packages a shootout between various groups, should be thrilling but comes across as perfunctory and routine. The book also gets grimmer as it concludes, which somewhat contradicts the novel’s earlier carefree attitude.

Fortunately, it ends up on a high note. Or nearly does; I’d recommend stopping at the penultimate chapter rather than the last unless, as the chapter title indicates, “you want a sequel”. It’s a huge downer, pointless and depressing, the kind of thing that’s best left as the first chapter of the sequel.

But again, if you can ignore that pesky problem, The Ultimate Rush is a wild ride, a breakneck thriller with great sympathetic characters, crackling narration and a devastating sense of cool. If every other suspense novel you read seems flat and plodding, try this one. Zzzoom!

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