Warner, 1999, 478 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60541-7
Sometimes, a book just takes you by surprise: It’s either much better than you’d expect, or you gradually realize that your expectations were completely out of line. With Peter Blauner’s Man of the Hour, it’s a little bit of both. While not flawless, this novel manages to be quite good in a very difficult dramatic register. A cursory glance at the back cover blurb may lead you to believe that it’s another thriller in which an average all-American man manages to battle terrorists intent on destroying western civilization. The dramatic reality of the narrative is quite different.
It’s become something of a cliché to say that the modern heroes are the public sector workers doing their best to maintain security and rationality in today’s world. Policemen, soldiers, firemen doctors, nurses, teachers, all toiling along day after day without ceremonies or awards. Blauner seems to have taken this axiom to heart as he was plotting his novel: Protagonist David Fitzgerald has maybe the toughest job in the world: teaching English in a racially-diverse Brooklyn high school. The novel opens on him as he tries to reach his students, wondering how many of them he can save.
Of course, it turns out that he can’t save them all. In a bit of dramatic irony, the antagonist of the novel ends up being a ex-student of his: Nasser, a confused young man lost between an America he find repellent and fundamentalist role models pushing him toward more and more dangerous acts. Manipulated by opportunists cloaking themselves in hollow jihad rhetoric, Nasser sets in motion a series of events by planting a home-made bomb in a school bus.
By sheer luck, David is there to save the day, in plain sight of television cameras. But even as he becomes a media darling, the fickle nature of his celebrity starts to shift. Suddenly, he’s suspected of planting the bomb himself. His personal problems erupt, his reputation is irremediably damaged and during that time, another bomb is being prepared…
The least one can say is that there’s a lot of stuff to deal with in Man of the Hour: the nature of media celebrity, the plight of immigrants, the challenges of being a teacher. Soon, it’s obvious that this may be a bomb-driven plot, but it’s not a thriller as much as it’s a drama with some built-in excitement. Blauner sets out to write a social drama, not a shoot-em’up.
What’s more, it’s seldom boring. Blauner writes with a eye for the telling detail, and he never shies away from bringing down his characters yet another notch. In one of the novel’s most darkly funny moment, David is not only disgraced, reviled and betrayed, but even his camping trip outside the city turns to disaster as his tent is flooded and he is forced to seek refuge with the FBI agents tailing him. The entire novel is peppered with short, sharp scenes that do much to keep our interest in the narrative.
Similar care is taken to make even the antagonist a curiously sympathetic figure. Nasser may stand against everything America has to offer, but we come to understand the pressures that can lead someone to that point. There is a terrible and visceral scene, early in the novel, in which he points to everyday items and scream his disgust to David. It’s one of many moments that remain in mind long after finishing the novel.
Similar memorable scenes and relationship evolve between the teacher, the antagonist and the young woman uniting them. What’s not so good is the relatively weak ending that caps off the entire novel. While it works more or less well, it’s too convoluted, too drawn-out and doesn’t work as intended. The epilogue brings another sour note, though this one is purely intentional.
But the last fifty pages aside, Man of the Hour is a fine example of an accessible novel that explores human issues with a dash of thriller mechanics. It’s compelling reading, features strong characters and occasional memorable moments. I don’t think you can ask much more from that type of book.