Washed in moon glow, Clark Kent straddles his barn’s peaked roof, staring out into the middle distance, seeing insects, bats, and owls in the blackness, and wondering uneasily what he’s supposed to do with all these crazy talents he just keeps finding out he has. After a while he gets up jiggling that mashed wad of lead in his left hand. And flings it suddenly, hard as he can.
It climbs, keeps climbing, and doesn’t arc ….
It’s the 1935 and Clark Kent of Smallville is having more and more difficulty concealing the strange powers he has been developing. He knows he’s adopted, of course; to John and Matha Kent he will always be the boy who fell off someone’s wagon … but Clark, fan of the “scientifiction” magazines, has his own theories about where he comes from.
A world away in New York City, alderman Lex Luthor begins building his political/criminal empire; cub reporter Lois Lane struggles to make a name for herself; and down-on-his-luck photographer Willi Berg is implicated in a sensational murder.
Across America, from Kansas to Hollywood to New York City, Clark and Willi make their journey together. At the end of the road lies Willi’s chances for acquittal … and the unveiling of a new American icon.
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This could have been a really awful book, the kind that ends up hidden among the Star Wars, Warhammer, and other fan-focused paperbacks at the end of the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section at your local Barnes & Noble. Tom DeHaven has not written a book for Superman fans though, not exclusively. He writes instead for a much larger audience of people who have not necessarily been following every single Superman comic, television show, or movie, but who nevertheless have this great archetypal story and character imprinted on their collective consciousness.
This book reinserts Clark Kent and his supporting cast into 1930s America, the America from which the Superman myth first arose. DeHaven knows the setting well, and through characters’ speech, through subtle bits of period detail, he does an excellent job evoking a rich and seamless world with a nice film noir feel to it. It’s a context in which the whole concept of Superman just feels right to me, in a way it never really has before.
The writing, though, is what really sets the book apart from your standard Sci-Fi/Fantasy fare. I hate to say that it’s literary, because that makes it sound inaccessible, which is not at all the case. Beyond that, though, I’m not sure I have the right vocabulary to talk about what is going on. To me it seems this story has been told through individual scenes, and DeHaven is extremely capable at establishing memorable characters and scenes in a very straightforward manner and very few pages.
In the various incarnations of the Superman story in recent years we’ve been seeing a determined, dutifully righteous hero, the man with the iron jaw and a homespun, small-town sense of right and wrong. It’s refreshing to see a new angle on the character. DeHaven’s Clark Kent has no idea what he ought to be doing with his powers; there are no disembodied voices to connect him to his Kryptonian heritage, no comic book characters to inspire him, and he isn’t at all the kind of person who would immediately think of donning a spandex suit and fighting crime. Just like all of us, Clark has to discover himself who he is going to be. I was really satisfied with the arc that the character makes through the novel, from confused farm boy to budding superhero. The resolution is anchored to one masterful scene where Lex Luthor and Superman meet at last, even as it sets up all that we know is still to come for these characters in the future.
Anyway, this is definitely up among my favorite books, and gets top marks.
My Grade: A