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Tim Pratt
ChiZine Press, 249 pages

Tim Pratt
Tim Pratt (aka T.A. Pratt) lives in Oakland, California with partner H.L. Shaw, and works as a senior editor for a trade publishing magazine.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Richard A. Lupoff

Several years ago when I was doing a lot more book reviewing than was probably good for my mind, I devised something called the Lupoff First Paragraph Test. The LFPT is very simple. If you don't know whether a given book is going to be worth reading, just sample the first paragraph. If that is good -- most notably, if it makes you want to keep on reading -- there's a chance that the whole book will be good. That's no guarantee. It could fall apart at any time. But it might -- it just might -- hold up. On the other hand, if the book starts badly, there is almost no chance that it will ever get better.

I've bounced this theory off several friends and colleagues including people like Barry Malzberg and Bill Pronzini, who have, at times, been in the agenting and editing rackets. In those businesses, time is money. You can't afford to spend hours or even days slogging through a three-, four-, or five-hundred page manuscript only to decide that it isn't worth representing or publishing.

Consequently, many agents and editors have come independently to adopt the First Paragraph Test or something very much like it. Barry Malzberg, being a kindhearted and charitable sort, says that he'll sometimes look at a page selected at random from the middle of the book, and another at the end, just to make sure that it didn't pick up. He tells me that it almost never does.

Which brings us around to Briarpatch, by Tim Pratt. Pratt is one of the young Turks of science fiction; his name pops up regularly on lists of award nominees. He is also a perceptive critic. (In the interest of full disclosure, he gave my magnum opus, Marblehead: A Novel of H. P. Lovecraft, a rave review in Locus.)

But what about the proverbial first paragraph of Pratt's new novel, Briarpatch? Take a look at this:

  The night before Bridget walked out of Darrin's life, six months before he watched her climb over the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge and dive headfirst into the water 200 feet below, six months and four seconds before she struck the surface of San Francisco Bay with a force of 15,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, dying instantly from the resulting physical trauma, they had this conversation:

"Remember when you said you wanted to drink wine from the small of my back?" Bridget asked. She stretched out face down on their bed, naked, a pillow under her chin. Candles burned on the dresser, and tinkling jazz played on the bedside radio.


I don't know about you, Gentle Reader, but as for me, that definitely passes the First Paragraph Test. If you want to split hairs and call it the First Two Paragraphs Test, you'll get no quarrel here.

It sounds like one of those urban angst novels that were so popular a few decades ago. Phil Dick wrote a bunch of them in parallel with his early science fiction efforts and was unable to find a market for them. After his death, of course, as his standing as a cult hero grew, everything including his old laundry lists became precious.

Pratt's novel starts grippingly, at least for me. It's a principle that used to be preached to wanna-be pulp writers, the narrative hook. You start right off with a red-hot action scene, or a striking image, some exciting dialogue or -- anything that works -- and grab the reader's attention, hook him like a fish, and keep reeling him in so he never has a chance to lay down your book.

In the space of 113 words Pratt establishes setting and shows us love, loss, death, and more than a slight suggestion of sex.

What's not to like?

But Tim Pratt is no ordinary writer and Briarpatch is no ordinary novel of urban angst. Almost at once, another jumper goes off the Golden Gate Bridge. And during the action, Bridget's ex-flame, an almost obsessive photographer, manages to snap a picture of Bridget climbing the rail. Later he discovers a striking face in the crowd of horrified onlookers, and we're off on a wild adventure.

Briarpatch is anything but a mere exercise in urban angst.

Bridget hits the water head first and turns up as ghost. The second jumper, Orville, lands in the bay feet first. He survives the impact and is rescued by the Coast Guard. Of course his legs are a mess. But somehow, they both wind up in a strange realm called the Briarpatch. It isn't quite clear whether this is a kind of multiverse of fractally probabilistic worlds or an outright fantasy realm. Certainly Bridget's presence there as a ghost suggests the latter, but Pratt gives us a lot of dialogue supporting the former.

Take your pick if you feel the need to do so, or just read on, reader, and go with the flow.

Darrin tries to track down the striking figure from that photograph of Bridget on the railing. Orville winds up in the Briarpatch where Bridget gets him to a hospital that cures patients by swapping them out for alternate versions of themselves. Back in the real world -- well, I guess that term will have to do -- the action meanders around the Bay Area, but mainly centers on sections of Oakland, California, that will be familiar to local readers. Pratt does a good job of making the settings convincing to others.

Briarpatch is a wild ride. Darrin and the other characters bounce back and forth between our world and the Briarpatch. Darrin encounters a fascinating character named Arturo who drives a sometimes anthropophagous automobile called a Chrysler Wendigo. We do get to meet the mysterious man from the bridge, Ismael. He was apparently born in the Briarpatch, which makes him different from ordinary humans born in our world and find their way into the Briarpatch. He's that old familiar guy -- you've encountered him before! -- the immortal who is tired of living and yearns for death.

There are endless wonders and strange characters in the Briarpatch, including shape-shifting bears who can become humans (or vice versa). There are strange sights, glowing lights, and elements of the quest novel. There are some pretty frank and explicit sex scenes, especially involving a fascinating female named Echo. There's philosophy and there's violence. There's menace and evil and retribution.

Briarpatch is pretty much sui generis. A couple of other novels do come to mind: Fritz Leiber's Our Lady of Darkness and Douglas Dorst's Alive in Necropolis. If we're into taxonomy, I suppose this sub-category could be dubbed contemporary urban dark fantasy. I'm not sure that's entire apt, either, but I guess it will do for the moment.

For a novel of 250 pages, Briarpatch seems to be a bigger book. There is so much in it, you find yourself wondering what new startlement awaits on the next page, in the next chapter, around the next bend. There are weird loose ends in the book. Where did the Chrysler Wendigo (a wondrous creation) come from? And what was the sequence about the vampire bar all about? Was that intended as the introduction of a major sub-plot that the author initiated and then forgot?

Don't let it worry you. Just immerse yourself in this book and enjoy!

Copyright © 2011 Richard A. Lupoff

Richard A. Lupoff most recent publications are The Emerald Cat Killer (a novel), and Killer's Dozen and Dreams (collections). His next book will be another novel, Rookie Blues. In addition to writing he is the Editorial Director of Surinam Turtle Press, an imprint of Ramble House.

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