Parabellum begins with the grisly scene after a mass shooting at a Chicago beach. The rest of the book describes – in great detail – the lives of four characters identified only as “the student,” “the ex-athlete,” “the veteran,” and “the programmer.” The absence of names for these central characters is disconcerting, but we get to know them well over the course of the four parts of the story. We also see the voice (in italics) of someone who seems to be justifying the mass killings, and counting down to the date of the massacre described at the start of the book. We can assume that each of the four characters will have some role in the eventual carnage – either as victims or murderers – but those roles are hidden until the very end. Ultimately, the long and varied vignettes about each of the four characters becomes dull and there is no real suspense leading up to the inevitable end, making the book as a whole disappointing.
The stories of the four characters are well-written and varied. There are childhood remembrances, school days remembrances, lots of scholastic sports (and not all from the ex-athlete), a sex scene, dream sequences, sessions with psychiatrists, fights with parents, pining for high school sweethearts, scenes of war, and many, many other scenes for each of four main characters. The problem is that they are not connected, and there’s no coherent plot or story to follow. It’s like paging through a photo album of these people’s lives. It’s nice, but it doesn’t really take you anywhere except that the people get older in each picture. Each short story is richly detailed and the writing and editing quality is top notch. If you’re into reading detailed descriptions of these people’s lives, then you’ll enjoy the middle 90% of the book. If you’re in a hurry to find out how these characters relate to each other, or relate to the mass killings, or relate to the italicized voice we keep hearing – then you’ll find it a drag.
Without spoiling anything (and it’s difficult to write a proper review without spoiling), the payoff at the end is not worth the long slog to get there (at least for me). The high-quality writing saves the middle of the book from being a complete waste of time. The stories in their own right are nice – but they are not exciting enough, or connected enough, and there’s not enough suspense generated to make them worth the reading time. I’ll look forward to a future book by this author, where the story is more traditional and the characters and plot move along in a more engaging way. The writing talent is there. So, next time.