Straw Dogs and Cats and Mice and Badgers and Moles and Everything Else.
Back when I was a kid, I got fourteen novels deep into Brian Jacques’ Redwall series. They were fun adventure books with a strong sense of tension, character and history that especially appealed to me because of my love of talking animal characters. But when I revisited the first novel a few years ago, it felt like I tried to use a cherished childhood playground slide only to get stuck halfway down. When I saw that The Builders also featured talking, anthropomorphic animals at the same level of technology (guns notwithstanding), I thought that maybe it could help fill that niche after all these years, but it’s more of a step sideways than a step forward.
What I found most lacking about Redwall upon revisiting it was that the conflict was always a stark, simple battle of good versus evil. Moreover, which side a character fell on was largely dictated by their species. Mice, hares, squirrels and badgers were always good, while rats, weasels, foxes and stoats were always evil, with maybe one or two exceptions. The twist The Builders throws on this is that every character, regardless of species, is an amoral scumbag motivated mostly by spite and greed. Species stereotyping still makes its way into the story, being half the defining traits of several characters. The narration keeps making brief digressions about how dangerous rattlesnakes are, how untrustworthy weasels are, how dangerous badgers are, how dumb rats are, and even how dangerous mice are. Once or twice the question of whether animals have to act according to their nature is brought up, but it’s never elaborated on and as far as I can tell, the answer is “most of the time”. The Builders is mainly concerned with being a stylish, ultraviolent romp in the mercenary underworld, so it doesn’t dwell on the question as much as I’d like for it to.
Daniel Polansky, the story’s author, is well-versed in this sort of work. He’s mainly known for the Low Town series of books, involving the mean slums of a fantasy city and the disgraced ex-cop who tries to rediscover his sense of justice in a hardboiled world that isn’t going to let him have it without a fight. The Builders is a self-described lark—the title, as explained by the posturing, stonefaced protagonist at the end, is ironic—meant to be a stylistic tribute to the violent, gritty movies of Sam Peckinpah. I’ve never seen a Peckinpah movie, but from what I can tell he liked to focus his stories around people who were trying to do good and take moral stands, but ended up being punished and either broken or forced to compromise by the amoral world around them and all the other characters. In The Builders, though, that’s relegated to one brief side plot. Main character The Captain is a bullet made out of cold fury and fermented revenge, aimed squarely at an old enemy who maimed him through treachery. He’s getting his old gang back together, and only one of them has to be dragged back into the fold and cured of a futile desire for pacifism. Once he’s back in, he’s loving his work as much as his fun-loving, hard-drinking, bloodthirsty friends.
The action itself manages to be sufficiently stylish and fun for the most part, assuming you can invest enough in the flashy but shallow characters. I ended up liking Gertrude the mole and Barley the badger most of all, leaving me miffed when the narrative used them up and tossed them out. The prose, with the snappy and straightforward way it depicts action and the tightrope act it pulls between gritty seriousness and tongue-in-cheek ridicule, is far and away the best aspect of the story. My favorite parts are the way it uses short, one-page chapters, from taking snapshots of a night of drunken revelry and a conversation that stops and starts over a period of hours, to cutting away to a sniper waiting to take her shot. On the downside, this fragmented presentation leads to both sides’ simple plans being obfuscated until the last moment, leading to the impression that the gang is meandering without aim until the other shoe drops. When I first started reading The Builders, thinking it was a heist story instead of a revenge story, I expected an Ocean’s Eleven-style briefing scene, cutting between the explanation beforehand and the complications that arise when the plan comes into effect. Now I wish the story had used this structure instead of sacrificing connective tissue for the sake of surprising the audience. I’m also toying with the wish that this story had been longer, so as to better flesh the characters out, but that might just have made The Builders overstay its welcome.
At the end of the day, The Builders can’t help but come up short against its competition, both on the ballot and in my mind. It doesn’t have the sheer fun and charm of The Lies of Locke Lamora, it doesn’t push seriously-presented ridiculousness to the same degree as Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden, and it isn’t daring enough to make the audience as uncomfortable with the protagonists as The Hateful Eight. On the other hand, it’s still fun and charming enough, there are moments where it shines, and I can’t stay annoyed at it for long. It’s a perfectly fine work from a potentially interesting writer, and if I’m only slightly disappointed with how it turned out.