Adam Mansbach may not seem like a likely candidate to write one of the best thriller/horror hybrids to come along this year, but he's done just that with his new novel The Dead Run. Mansbach, author of the pop culture phenomenon Go the Fuck to Sleep as well as the novels The End of the Jews and Angry Black White Boy, attacks his latest book with a potent mix of literary skill and pulp savviness. The result is a lean, intoxicating funhouse of a book that is difficult to put down.
Mansbach spends the first few chapters of The Dead Run setting a handful of disparate storylines in motion. We meet a man named Jess Galvan, doing time in a Mexican prison for an attempted act of bravery in a dive bar. Galvan is chosen by a mysterious prison legend known as El Cucuy to deliver a dangerous package for him. We meet Sheriff Bob Nichols, a man barely qualified for his job serving and protecting the citizens of a Texas county that shares a border with Mexico. Sherry Richards is a shy young girl who suddenly finds herself in the hands of a cult with ties to her family. There's also a motorcycle gang called the True Natives, a Mexican cop named Fuentes, and a self-styled messiah named Aaron Seth along for the ride.
The Dead Run feels like a straightforward thriller for much of its first act, but before long Mansbach starts layering in the supernatural ingredients. Somehow he's able to keep the book grounded even as he introduces elements like the Virgin Army (undead virgin girls rising from their desert graves), the Righteous Messenger, a box containing a still-beating human heart, custom-made hot tubs full of virgins' blood, and more.
Once you start playing characters and plot points like this against each other, the only way to move forward is fast and loose. That's exactly what Mansbach does, and it's a testament to his skill that he never loses control. The Dead Run maintains the relentless pace its title implies, but it's not like the author is just throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what sticks. It's carefully orchestrated chaos, the kind that's difficult to pull off without leaving a million plot holes in your wake, but Mansbach pulls it all together in the end.
The Dead Run is a compulsive page-turner, with Mansbach smartly structuring his short chapters so that the stakes are raised for the characters every three to five pages. And you'll likely keep turning those pages, because not only has Mansbach constructed a helluva thrill ride, he's populated it with solid, fleshed-out characters that you can invest in. Before you know it, the book reaches a conclusion that not only brings the story to a satisfying end, but kicks the door wide open for a sequel. Mansbach is reportedly working on the follow-up now, and I can’t wait to see if he can maintain the chaos across another book. In the meantime, run on down to your local bookseller and pick this one up.