Caleb and Lenny have broken down on these roads. And the only thing that they hate more than that, the stifling heat, and the fact they have no food, is each other.
J Daniel Sawyer’s novella opens in the sort of situation we’ve all been in from time to time. The car breaks down, you run out of fuel, the train is early for once stranding you in a station slightly smaller than your wardrobe in sub-zero temperatures for an hour until the next train comes. That kind of thing. Travel is easy and fun a lot of the time as long as you’re actually travelling and when that stops happening? That’s when things start getting interesting. That’s when you realise those odd, not quite anywhere roads that I love so much go to all sorts of places that you may not want to be. Your universe shrinks from the glorious, mobile red line of your journey, Indiana Jones-ing your way across the world, to a fading car battery, a single street light, the hum of a bug zapper. It’s always annoying, occasionally hilarious and frequently very scary. As is Sawyer’s novella.
Opening with this single event, Sawyer spirals the plot out as Caleb and Lenny decide to seek help and find… Ideas Inc. A warehouse, in the middle of nowhere, where Caleb is met by the owner, Mr Blassingame. He explains, carefully and politely, that whilst he can’t help as such, he can sell Caleb a pack of ten ideas written on Post-It notes (idea only good until the Post-It is peeled away).
For 17 bucks.
And they may not work.
Caleb buys them.
If nothing else because they’ll make Lenny even more unhappy.
What follows is a frantic cascade of disaster which plays like a pub crawl, crossed with a spell in purgatory, gone horribly, horribly wrong. Told in admirably laconic first person by Caleb, we follow the world’s most reluctant double act as they find some food (sort of), discover the awful truth about what lies in upstate New York, weaponise pigeons and come face to face with something that would have made Mulder turn to Scully and go, “See? HA! TOLD YOU!” just before they were both eaten.
The pace never lets up, the boys never once catch a break until the very end and the whole thing is written with maniacal glee, energy and wit, as well as a very real sense of danger. Whilst nothing here would overly concern Winchester and Winchester, Caleb and Lenny are two normal, and slightly rubbish, guys with absolutely no resources. The situations they get into are fantastical in nature certainly but Sawyer never shies away from the physical impact of what they’re doing, or the danger they’re in. By the end of the book, they both look like 8,000 miles of bad road, which is appropriate, let’s face it.
Sawyer excels at this sort of horror comedy, even managing what very few other authors do; marrying plot, punchline and character to create a surprisingly sweet whole. This is, at its core, a story about Caleb and Lenny learning how to get on again and Sawyer has a keen, very observant eye when it comes to male character. These two men love one another, in that fraternal, uncomfortable-with-affection, punch-in-the-shoulder way we all recognise, and their willingness to risk everything for the other (even whilst telling them how much they suck) is very sweet. Likewise, the arguments are truly epic, and Sawyer clearly enjoys letting the two of them bicker.
On top of all this, he even finds time to comment on, and affectionately satirise, how we need and use stories to lead us to emotionally truths which, whilst blindingly obvious, we can’t really accept without a story showing us the way. Finally, the payoff – and the afterword explaining the inspiration for the story – show you yet another way of looking at it.
Oh and there are Nazis. Of course.
Ideas Inc is a grumpy, cheerfully profane, violent and glorious story of what happens when you get trapped on the road between places. It’s a story about stories, about male friendship, about the absurdity of life and about how one throwaway joke can inspire so much. It’s great fun and I highly recommend it. Just remember, don’t tear the idea off the pad until you’ve used it…