NOS4A2 by Joe Hill (William Morrow, April 30th, 2013)-8 year old Victoria McQueen has a very, very special bike. In fact, if she needs to find something, she gets on that bike and peddles like the wind, all the way to the crumbling ruin of the Short Way Bridge. The bridge never steers her wrong, and in 1996, at age 17, after a fight with her parents that puts her in the mood for vengeance (of the now-I’ve-gone-missing-and-won’t-you-be-sorry kind) Vic goes looking for trouble. Remember, the bridge has never steered her wrong, so when she heads through it on her old bike with menace in mind, she finds herself at the Sleigh House, a white Cape Cod at the end of a dirt lane, whose trees are inexplicably hanging with Christmas ornaments. When she discovers a black Rolls Royce with the license plate NOS4A2 in the garage, with a child inside, she’s compelled to help him, but Vic has no idea what she’s in for. This particular car belongs to a man named Charlie Manx, and he wants to take Vic to Christmasland, where all of her dreams will come true, and she’ll never be unhappy again. Unfortunately, a trip to Christmasland has a terribly high price. Vic has no plans to go easy, and so begins the story of Vic McQueen and Charlie Manx.
Vic escapes from Charlie Manx that day, and Charlie is subsequently incarcerated for the disappearances of numerous children. His longtime disciple, Bing Patridge (aka The Gasmask Man), unsound of mind, murderous (with a healthy helping of rape on the side), and an expert with a canister of sevoflurane gas (which, most appropriately, smells of gingerbread), is left floundering, devastated at the notion that he may never make it to Christmasland. No worries, though, because for Charlie, death is just a hiatus, and all those sad children are calling for him to ensure their infinite happiness. But Bing and Charlie have some loose ends to tie up, and first on the list is Vic McQueen.
As for Vic, she gets on with her life (in a fashion-those phone calls from dead kids in Christmasland aren’t doing anything for her sanity), but has convinced herself that all those trips over the Short Way were just in her imagination. She has a boyfriend who adores her, and who she loves in her own way, and a son, Wayne, that she adores, but she remains more unsettled than ever. She can’t shake the feeling that maybe she doesn’t deserve happiness and that her boyfriend and son would be much better off without her. Soon though, Vic will have a purpose, and it will be the most important task of her life. Charlie Manx has glided back into town in his otherworldy Rolls Royce. It’s time for Vic to find something again, and that something is Wayne. Charlie plans to take Wayne to Christmasland, and Vic will do anything to get him back. Anything.
I struggled with the urge to write a one-sentence review that consisted of “Holy sh*t this is awesome, just read it, already!!”, but I resisted. Just barely, though. NOS4A2 comes in at a little under 700 pages, and I flew through it like it was 200. It’s been a while since I’ve gotten so thoroughly lost in a book. Vic is everything I love in a protagonist. She’s rebellious, whip smart, stubborn, potty mouthed, independent, and…flawed. So, so very flawed. It made me love her. Her complex relationship with her parents serves a lot to make her what she becomes, but her love for her son is so pure, so blinding, and her willingness to go to hell and back to save him is really what this book is about. Don’t get me wrong, the basic premise of NOS4A2 is fascinating. Vic isn’t the only one that has a “talent”. Charlie is one of those people, and his car is the key, as Vic’s bike is hers. Along the way, Vic actually meets others with similar talent, but you do get a sense that having this “gift” eventually may cause a certain amount of erosion in the mind of the person that carries it, and in Charlie’s case, he’s become a monster. Charlie is no two-dimensional character, though. He’s quite complex, and sometimes even somewhat charming, and that makes him so much more terrifying. And NOS4A2 WILL terrify you. I’m not sure how Joe Hill feels about comparisons to his father’s work, but NOS4A2, for me, brought to mind some of the very best of King. However, Joe Hill has a voice that’s all his own and the sheer abundance of imagination in this novel is staggering, as is the impeccable attention to detail. Riding along with Vic McQueen is exhilarating and sometimes even heartbreaking, and Charlie Manx’s world is hair-raising and insidiously creepy. If you only read a few books this year, make this one of them.