Thursday, April 14, 2011

"Put Your Shovel in the Ground, Matthew..." : A Look at The Cleanup by Sean Doolittle

"Worth couldn't get over the looks people gave him." --The Cleanup, Sean Doolittle

Alright. Listen up, pickles because I'm only going to say this once and I know you were all waiting with baited breath. I no longer live in New Jersey. I live in the big city now. Hence things have been very chaotic for me lately. I've had to learn to live at a faster pace. Consequently, I fell into a reading rut. A reading rut refers to an uncomfortably long period of time when every book I read fails to do anything for me--often to the point where I can't even finish them. Happily, every reading rut eventually comes to an end with a book that grips me from the first page, burrows into my mind and heart and more often than not becomes a favorite. For this latest reading rut, that book was Sean Doolittle's The Cleanup.

The Cleanup introduces us to Matthew Worth, an Omaha police officer who's having a terrible year. The latest in a long line of cops, he has the best intentions, but he's not happy and therefore not that good at the job. His wife has left him for a homicide detective and as a result of punching said detective (a superior officer), he's been put on probation: assigned to the graveyard shift of a local convenience store. The only bright spot in all this is his friendship with the checkout girl, nursing school student Gwen Mullen, whom he's slowly falling for. Gwen Mullen has her share of problems too, namely a troubled past and an abusive boyfriend. When her boyfriend goes too far one night, Gwen fights back and kills him. With no one else to turn to, she asks Matthew for help. Hence...The Cleanup.

The Cleanup proves the maxim that the power of a good book lies more in how the story is told than the story itself. This isn't a story that's never been seen before. Of course, Matthew risks his career (and eventually his life) to help Gwen. Of course, the boyfriend turns out to be involved in shady dealings. Of course, the shady powers-that-be go looking for answers when the boyfriend goes missing. Yes, I guessed all this would happen and yes, it all does, but this just made the book more enjoyable for me. It was fun to see Doolittle take what could have been a formulaic premise and truly make it his own with wonderful characters and great writing. All this leads to a truly unpredictable (and very poignant) ending that's all the more rewarding for everything that comes before it.

As someone who struggles with juggling a large cast of characters, I was very impressed with how Doolittle navigated through his universe and its inhabitants. The pacing is just right, giving you enough time with each set of characters and each setting, and then moving along before too much is revealed. I couldn't put this book down. One highlight for me was the dialogue. You want realistic dialogue in a book, but truth be told, realistic dialogue can be pretty boring, filled with superfluous "ums" and "likes" that die on the page. Luckily, there are authors who know how to create dialogue that feels realistic but without any of the dull stuff. Doolittle is one of these authors. His dialogue is so sharp and vivid, I could hear the characters' voices (I'd like to think that was Doolittle's doing and not the result of some latent insanity). Short, brisk sentences blast us with emotion and wit, shifting between laugh out loud humor and heartwrenching honesty.

I won't spoil much about the characters because it's best to meet them on your own, but I will say this. I'm trying really hard to break my habit of developing crushes on fictional men, but I couldn't help it here. I love Matt Worth. I prefer my heroes flawed, and he's so beautifully flawed. He's like a broken down knight-in-shining-armor, more of a Balin than a Lancelot: a painfully good guy, beaten down by bad luck and human error, but still desperate to do the right thing. I was on his side from the get go, which just made the ride that followed even more thrilling.

Well, I think I've gone on long enough about this great book. Go out and get yourself a copy. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

P.S. The title of this entry comes from Melissa McClelland's song "Go Down Matthew" off her album "Thumbelina's One Night Stand" (possibly my favorite album title ever). I've come to associate the song with The Cleanup (even if the stories don't exactly match up) so I threw it in. Here's a video of the song in case you're interested.