Kurt Schuett (Bad Day Books 2014, ) 294 pages $10.84 cover price
In the beginning, there is a very good first chapter title: In the Beginning, There Was Unemployment. What separates Kurt Schuett's novel Insurgency from the growing numbers of reader-disturbing apocalyptic fiction is that this novel is grounded in an understanding of why a mass of people may revolt and turn to terror. After all, it truly is in the eye of the beholder as a famous old political cartoon of Ronald Reagan put it, which ones are the insurgents and which ones are the freedom fighters?
Imagine, as Schuett did, a group of people who have become so disaffected and disenfranchised by society that they wish to strike back against it. How best to go about that? There are of course the usual methods: bombing, kidnapping, or perhaps attacking corporate computers. All have proven successful in both the worlds of reality and fiction, yet all are limited. Not to sound utterly callous about it, but a bomb destroys one building, kills those unfortunate enough to be in its immediate vicinity, and the result is that the corporate state clamps down even firmer on the aggrieved. Would it not be much more effective to destroy from within, by turning the comfortable into the uncomfortable? Yes, it would be much more effective to turn the weakness of the target against itself.
So what then is the targeted weakness in the people of Insurgency's Chicago? There is a simple one word answer: drugs. And so it is that the insurgents here invent a narcotic named Red Phase, with one assumed the name chosen from making the takers 'see red.' As one of Schuett's characters describes the effect, “This Red Phase supposedly numbs people entirely, causes them to become hyperactive, aggressive, and can cause both euphoric and paranoid reactions, depending on the individual.” Flood the street market with this stuff and enough of the subconsciously angry – even the consciously bored – would transform from so many mild-mannered Bruce Banners into legions of raging Incredible Hulks. Smash!
This, one must say, is an excellent set-up for a novel; so the question then is, how well does the author execute it? The answer is, very well indeed. His protagonist Alan Schultz is just another guy who works at a dull office job (he marks standardized tests for a living – lucky him!) who has a shot of Red Phase slipped into his Friday after-work drink. Complications arise, in the form of a trail of dead bodies that are the result of Alan murdering them, as he realizes to his horror when the effects of the drug wear off. He is this resolved to set things right.
Where Schuett is absolutely brilliant in his plotting is in describing what the reaction of government is to this latest pandemic. There is a G-20 Summit planned for Chicago. Yes, it is ludicrous to put such an event in a large city, but on the other hand that is exactly what happened in Toronto just a few years ago. Thus, the corporate state cracks down on personal liberties, the streets are armed with the National Guard, and with that as the result it becomes an interesting debate as to whether or not the drug lord insurgents actually have won. The nation is destroying itself from within.
I note from his biography that Kurt Schuett is also an award-winning poet. It shows. It shows not in the way one might reflexively expect – he is in no way a florid or purple writer. No, he understands the economy and vivacity of words; how words can manipulate a mood with equal (yet hopefully more benign) effect that a Red Phase drug. I truly look forward to reading more of his work.