The Former Hero, by Jeffrey Allen Mays, is a complex novel that I can foresee re-reading several times. I attended a launch party for the novel on Facebook and was fortunate enough to win a signed copy. After receiving it in the mail and reading the first few chapters, I went to my iPad and ordered the e-book from Amazon. Yes—I am the type of person that likes to save (or perhaps preserve) exceptional paperback and hardcover books. The Former Hero paperback will have a special place in my library.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
Where to begin this book review is problematic for me because there are so many good aspects to the writing. The sense of place, the mythology of the hero, the concepts of good versus evil, the religious allegory, and the rich tapestry of characters created by the author are all stand-out aspects in the novel.
Sense of Place
When the story begins, it could be set in a modern suburban neighborhood where kids play outside during the summer, have tea parties with dolls, chase butterflies in nearby fields, and draw on the sidewalk with colored chalk. Quickly, though, Mays begins to add layers to this world that only appears ideal on the surface. Readers learn the police rarely, if ever, patrol the neighborhoods. Laws are simply not enforced. The Mayor, Robert Knox, corrupted the police force and employs madmen and costumed villains with names like “The Bombardier,” “Taser,” and “Viper” to keep the populace under control. The closer the characters get to the geographic center of the city, the worse the corruption grows. Children are kidnapped for the sex trade. Women are sold into forced marriages. People are murdered in the street. Good cops, like one of the main characters, Lt. McCarthy, are few and far between.
What gives story world an additional depth is the research that Lt. McCarthy conducts into the history of the town and the supervillain known as The Minstrel. This type of research is banned by the Mayor, but because of McCarthy’s connections in the police force, he is able to find documents about the earliest settlement in the area. Readers learn about the town from the first settlement days when the physical embodiment of evil, The Minstrel, pulled up to a wooden platform and disembarked from a stagecoach. How the townspeople first fell into corruption—how the Minstrel was able to work her brand of psychological destruction until the townspeople were stained by evil and despair—is slowly revealed through the first-hand accounts available in these historical documents.
Mays creates his characters with an impressive level of complexity. They are heroes and they are villains; they are flawed human beings and they are monsters; they are drifters, loners, detectives, hypocrites, and sometimes saviors. They might be imbued with mystical powers or they might be insane. Reading through the novel, which shifts section-by-section through various character points-of-view, lets the readers “see” each character from multiple perspectives. For example, readers are introduced to The Former Hero, John Common, through his own rather convoluted thoughts, through the experiences of Penny, a child whose cat he once rescued from a tree, through various reports of so-called health care professionals who work for the Mayor, through flashbacks, through interactions with villains, and through observations of other main characters like Lt. McCarthy.
Part of the enjoyment of the novel is siphoning through these observations to reach the “truth” of the characters. Is John Common the hero Omni-man who has been poisoned and trapped by the Mayor and his henchmen in a medical institution or is he simply a man with delusions of special abilities? Did he save a young man named Jimmy Noble by compassionately healing The Viper’s physical deformities, or did he murder Noble as The Viper claims? Did he really save the city over and over again, or is he mad?
Seriously—Major Spoilers Ahead!
Years ago when I first read A Light in August, by William Faulkner, my American Lit Professor made a comment that has stuck with me to this day. He said that authors take particular care in naming characters, and if an author uses a name with the initials of J.C., readers should look for an analogy to Jesus Christ. This struck me with the character of John Common in The Former Hero, whose super powers dealt with healing and helping people put past torments in perspective so they can move on and live a better life.
The super villain known as The Minstrel also has an analogy in the Christian religion. Much like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, she started the townspeople on the path to corruption. She is still there in the current day, literally worshiped by the Mayor and his people. As Lt. McCarthy learns through studying the town’s history, she began by sowing discord, and then managed to tempt the wife of one of the settlers, Eva Calhoun, who then tempted her husband, Adam. Instead of the gift of knowledge, though, The Minstrel offers the gift of beauty. It is a false gift and Mays’s description of the temptation, and the fall of Eva and Adam, is one of the most chilling and disturbing scenes in the novel. Adam’s father eventually catches The Minstrel and curses her so her skin changes and becomes scaly like a serpent. He does not disown Adam and Eva completely, but banishes them from their beautiful Eden-like farm in the countryside to live in the now-corrupt town.
The Former Hero, by Jeffrey Allen Mays, is not a novel to be read quickly; it is something to be enjoyed and savored; to be analyzed and discussed among friends. It has elements of a mystery, a gritty urban crime drama, a noir detective story, and a superhero comic book. It has a mixture of action, adventure, mythology, philosophy, and spine-tingling horror. It is a novel that readers will continue to re-visit in their own libraries for years to come.