[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
Mash up a mystery, a graphic novel sensibility and a fantasy time travel novel, and what have you got? The Edgar-nominated Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski, a novel so compelling that you’ll want to read it in a single sitting.
Mickey Wade is a journalist in a time when newspapers are disappearing right and left (that is, in the present), so it’s not surprising that his alt-weekly newspaper has just given him the heave-ho. That means that Mickey can’t pay his rent in Philadelphia’s fancy Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, and has to move to his grandfather’s efficiency apartment in Frankford. Frankford is one of the busiest drug corridors in the city, and was at one time the hunting grounds for the Frankford Slasher. Five out of every eight buildings that were once bustling are now weedy lots or vacant ruins. Mickey is taking a big, big step down in the world.
Mickey’s grandfather is in the hospital, having suffered a seizure and fallen into a coma, which is why the efficiency is vacant. Grandpop Henry wasn’t big on possessions, apparently, because aside from a desk and a fold-out couch, there is almost nothing in the apartment except boxes and boxes of documents. And there’s an old bottle of Tylenol in the medicine cabinet, which Mickey finds he needs pretty desperately after a night of too many beers and no food to “celebrate” his move. Expiration date of 1982 or not, Mickey reasons that they can’t hurt and might help.
Mickey hustles back to bed, hoping the pills will help him get some sleep. The real problems start when he wakes up before dawn in the same apartment, but in a different time: February 22, 1972, the very day on which he was born. He wanders around the neighborhood a bit, trying to figure out what the heck is going on. No one seems to be able to see him, and he doesn’t seem to be able to affect matter in quite the same way he could in the present, but the worst is that he seems to have become seriously allergic to sunlight; when the sun rises, a beam of light burns away two of his fingers. Obviously something very strange is going on.
Mickey wakes up the following day in the world of the present on a hospital gurney. His adventures in the past looked just like a seizure to his bedmate, and she assumes that he’s on drugs. He is, as it turns out, but the drug isn’t like anything anyone has ever seen. He finds he still has the two fingers he lost in the past, but he can’t use them: they’re completely numb and won’t bend or move.
The plot zooms off from there, with Mickey trying to figure out what is going on with those pills in the Tylenol bottle, what’s happening in the present that’s affected by the past — and, ultimately, whether he can save his father from being murdered when Mickey is a boy by tracking down the murderer years before that act. Somehow his grandfather is mixed up in this, as one might expect from the fact that he had a stash of the pills that allow Mickey to travel in time. And somehow the former occupant of his grandfather’s apartment — a psychiatrist — is involved; those boxes of documents Mickey’s grandfather has accumulated seem to be comprised largely of that psychiatrist’s records of medical experimentation with precisely the medication Mickey is now using himself.
Swierczynski’s writing has the brisk pace of a graphic novel, and it’s easy to envision the panels that might accompany it if it were produced in that form — a result made even easier by the fact that the book does include illustrations in black and white by comics illustrator Laurence Campbell. The plot is as complicated as any mystery reader could want, and the clues are all there to allow the reader to figure it out just seconds before Swierczynski explicitly spells it out. And the time travel device — those pills — is as fantastic as any fantasy reader could want. This book is just plain fun. I recommend you start it early in the afternoon on a free day, though, unless you want to be up all night long racing to the denouement.