FIRST, BEWARE THAT spoilers lurk here. Second, we’re going to gaze into the rear view a tad: two decades ago, in a review of the Clint Eastwood film In the Line of Fire, the LA Weekly noted that only in America could you have a political thriller bereft of politics. I paraphrase since it’s been so long, but the observation has always stuck with me — especially when I was reading Hero, Mike Lupica’s young adult thriller, which grew out of his well-regarded sports books for young readers. In the Eastwood movie, John Malkovich is an assassin out to get the President, and Eastwood is the repentant JFK-era agent who gets a second chance at saving the country. But the Malkovich character doesn’t have any particular agenda in the movie — he just wants to kill the President because he’s, well, bad. And this is the main problem with Hero.
Now, I’m a Lupica fan when it comes to his oeuvre; I have enjoyed, in particular, some good nights reading his baseball saga Heat aloud to my own in-house Little Leaguer. Indeed, Lupica comes to novel-wrangling from an already illustrious trajectory as a sports columnist and ESPN commentator, and his new tale starts out promisingly enough. Tom Harriman, the narrator and father of our eventual titular hero, Zach, is in Eastern Europe, nabbing a Radovan Karadzic/Slobodan Milosevic war criminal for trial — one guesses — in the West.
In this prologue — think a James Bond pre-title sequence — we learn that Tom has certain “powers.” He’s not quite Superman, but he seems to be a tad more than Batman, based on his ability to leap multi-story distances and to somehow transport himself across rooms, as needed, in close combat situations; a kind of localized teleportation.
Like Batman, though, he’s still mortal, and the plane he pilots back with War Prisoner on board is scarcely indestructible: he never makes it home to his family’s Manhattan co-op. And then we switch to third person, and we meet Zach, understandably grieving for the loss of his father.
Zach was unclear about what, exactly, his father did — other than work as a special operative for the President. But what kind of President? And what kind of operations? The President has a cranky, secretive vice president, but we’re never quite allowed to know his politics, or the actual worldview of the current administration. What sort of operation did Zach’s father give his life for?
As Zach ponders these questions, he finds a growing power within himself. Not to move on in spite of great loss — though that’s there, too — but literal “powers,” like the kind his dad had. Apparently, these powers come “online” when they’re passed on, bequeathed, or when the recipient is fully into adolescence.
Zach has time for such pondering and exploration because his father shared another trait with Batman, or at least, Bruce Wayne: Great wealth. And so, the bully Zach encounters is at a fairly tony private school, his weekend afternoon getaways consist of courtside tickets to the Knicks, and when needed, there are even private cars.
Batman is one of my favorite mythic heroes, and his easy wealth never got in the way of a good story; we could overlook questions like: “Why didn’t young Bruce wind up in an orphanage?”
In fact, Zach’s father was at an orphanage, and his mysterious background — before the successes on the football field at Harvard, and as a government operative — while touched on, is never fully examined.
Which is really the main frustration with the tale: there are glimpses of ideas, and plotlines, but it feels like Lupica is setting up for another series, and the main payoffs will come in later books. For example, the world’s forces of darkness are simply known, colloquially, as “The Bads.”
But who are the The Bads? Religious fundamentalist terrorists? Rogue military factions? Corporate overlords? An agglomeration of sociopaths? Any alliance of convenience between any such factions? The book never makes it clear.
But The Bads, it seems, wanted Zach’s father dead, and now they may be after Zach himself, before his own heroism can come fully online. Zach is tested in a series of ambushes — more than one of them in Central Park (if nothing else, the book evokes a palpable sense of New York that will have you missing it, if you haven’t been in awhile).
Most of these involve fisticuffs, and they reminded me of the old Power Rangers episodes I used to watch with my son, when the beachhead of an alien invasion was always a neighborhood park, where fist fights and martial arts showdowns could then commence. I’m quite fond of those old episodes, and even here, there’s an eventual explanation for the low-level lethality deployed by the presumed “Bads.” But in a world where there are no suicide bombers, loose nukes, or false flag operations, what are The Bads, then, really up to?
There is an assassination attempt of a charismatic Senator, while making a speech in Central Park. Zach’s mom, to bury her own sorrows, has thrown herself into the Senator’s campaign (the Senator being a close family friend). Because he’s doing well in California and New York, we might infer a certain “Blue state” outlook, but this is never made clear. Nor are we sure if he’s running against the incumbent President, in a primary, or for his own party’s nomination, as a rival, in the general.
It would matter, because it might say a lot about who this particular “Bad” is, and why he wanted to kill the Senator. And when we find out the Senator had intended to pick Zach’s dad as his running mate, it might explain even more.
We know that Lupica has his own politics — he went after Cheney, et al in his columns — but he doesn’t bring any of it to bear here, so we’re left with a political thriller devoid of politics, and thus, of motivation. And by not letting us, or Zach, know what kind of forces he’s really up against, what his world is really like, the stakes are kept low and Zach still isn’t allowed to really grow up.
Given Lupica’s fondness for his characters, maybe he’ll let that happen in subsequent installments. The action’s already lively, now it’s a question of tethering it to the real world. Where, hero powers aside, this book is striving to be set.