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Often when authors push their second babies into the literary world, the critics will stand bedside, looking over their skinny glasses set atop skinnier noses, straightening their black turtlenecks and marveling at how smart and clever they are, congratulating themselves on how the reading world looks to them for guidance. Expectant readers wait for the birth to finish, the book to spring forth mewling and wailing; we wait, gnawing on cuticles, for judgment to be passed, dreading words like “disappointing second effort,” “performance anxiety,” and most certainly, “sophomore slump.”
For Chuck Wendig’s Mockingbird, the critics can suck it. This is a sophomore slamdunk.
Miriam Black makes a triumphant return, as snarky, snotty, and unrefined as ever, the hopelessly flawed mental case we fell in love with in Blackbirds. Since saving Louis, her sort-of-friend-with-benefits-who-puts-up-with-her-shit, from a vicious killer at New Jersey’s Barnegat Lighthouse the prior year, Miriam’s tried life the normal away, as in, a steady address (an Airstream trailer in a shithole trailer park), constant black gloves (to keep her from seeing the deaths of those she touches), even a regular job where she gets to interact with everyone’s favorite group of humans—tourists! But, duh—normal isn’t Miriam. Not in any definition of the word. It sort of makes you wonder what Louis Darling was thinking when he plunked down the cash for the silver bullet they call home. There is no keeping Miriam down. The fact that she lasts a year speaks volumes about her character.
But when she preempts a mass shooting at the Ship Bottom Sundries (and takes a bullet intended for someone else), her commitment to normalcy does a face plant in the Jersey Shore sand. She can’t handle it. No more. Stripes of the old Miriam burn through the façade, like solvent on your car’s paint job—crass, uncouth, to the point of being obnoxious. It almost makes you feel sorry for Louis. Almost.
As seen in Blackbirds, Miriam and her magic hands are constantly placed in situations where she is challenging fate, not just questioning its motives or idly wondering, Gosh, I wonder what the future has in store for me, but actually grabbing fate by the throat and screaming, “Not today, assh**e!” If we were to conduct a scene-by-scene breakdown of Blackbirds versus Mockingbird, certainly we could identify similarities in the story structure and within Miriam’s arc; however, this time, Miriam’s concern for her fellow players feels deeper, less opportunistic (well, except for those irresistible moments when she channels her inner AT&T to reach out and touch someone). She really goes beyond her comfort zone when, during a stopover at an all-girls’ school for a Louis-arranged “gig,” she comes in physical contact with a troubled student who is facing a horrific death at the hands of a ruthless killer. Miriam knows she has to do something—whereas last time around, she wasn’t clear on whether she could alter the course of fate (which she clearly did at Blackbird’s conclusion, or else Louis would be six feet under), she knows now that she absolutely must act. If she doesn’t, this girl will die, and in the goriest, saddest, scariest way possible.
Also more fleshed out in Mockingbird is the presence of what Miriam names “The Trespasser.” In my recent interview with Wendig, he clarified for me that this entity was indeed present in Blackbirds, embodied in the creepy “Not-Louis” character who terrorized Miriam. This time around, Not-Louis, aka The Trespasser, is phenomenally meaner, graphically so, careful to not grant Miriam the psychic rest she desperately needs (and likely deserves) when it begins to hint at Miriam’s own imminent end. As Wendig volleyed to me, “the question: is the Trespasser haunting Miriam, or is Miriam haunting herself as the Trespasser?” Effing brilliant.
To continue along the theme of how irradiant this Wendig fellow is, he never shies away from an opportunity to educate his reader—even when he doesn’t know he’s doing it. (Or maybe he does and that’s just part of his evil plan to take over the world!) So nuanced and entrenched are these factual morsels in the plot of the story (Procne and Philomela and sparrows? Seriously?) that you don’t even realize you’re learning something new until you reach the end of the scene, and you say, Holy shit, I had no idea! I love those moments. He’s good at ’em.
Wendig relies heavily on the symbolism of birds, far beyond the books’ titles; the ornithology in the overarching story is intrinsic to Miriam’s experience, both as a “psychic” and as someone with a painful past whose current hold on sanity is remarkably tenuous. The birds themselves become characters within the tale, portents that signal the shit’s about to hit the fan, warnings for Miriam that she should tread carefully. It’s cool when the birds arrive—it’s like the theme music from Jaws.
In every distinct setting, Wendig provides a powerful sense of place, down to the finite details, sometimes uncomfortably so. This ability to paint us into a scene is not limited to physical locale but permeates throughout the narrative, so visceral and uncompromising that you can taste it, you can feel it, as if you were standing in the room watching Miriam unravel:
Water suddenly seeps out from under it—brackish and murky, like the birth water from a swamp monster’s womb. It’s cold on her bare toes. It stinks, too. Stagnant. Funky. Fungal.”
Don’t fret, esteemed readers. There is so much more where that came from.
Wendig’s style is as taut and vulgar—and honest—as ever. Miriam says those things many of us only think, which is just one of the many things that endears us to her. For all of her flaws, Miriam Black is a fundamentally good person who has had a shit hand dealt to her, who believes she is doing the right thing, and this is excruciatingly evident in Mockingbird. She goes to great, oft-painful lengths to work toward her objective. Where a weaker person would say “f**k it” and move on, Miriam fights through. Even when fighting becomes literal. And it does. There is enough ass-kicking in this installment that Chuck Norris would need a breather afterwards.
For those nervous about sequels, pop an Ativan and take a few cleansing breaths. Mockingbird, dare I say, is even better than its predecessor, a heady feat considering the pressure of novels written in series format. Chuck Wendig delivers on the promise he established in Blackbirds. The continuing saga of Miriam Black never lags with its hairpin plot turns and freakishly ornate imagery. It is a book that, once consumed, will leave you famished for the next installment.