Review: Daniel Hornsby’s new novel seeks meaning in a world gone mad
Pop quiz: When was the last time you read a novel by a younger author that was effective and entertaining as a page-turner, but also concerned with old-school and seemingly uncool themes such as sin, forgiveness, spirituality or even accountability? I’ll wait.
Such a novel is not easy to find nowadays. But you’ve read one if you happened to catch Daniel Hornsby’s 2020 debut Via Negativa, a svelte yet brooding tale that involves a forlorn priest on the lam with a beat-up car functioning as a mobile monk’s cell, as well as a pistol and a wounded coyote. It is a story about escaping one’s past and confronting it at the same time. But it also manages to find pockets of humor in the vastness and general weirdness of our country, while tackling weighty themes like faith in general and the recent history of the Catholic Church in the United States in particular.
This first novel stood out in numerous ways, maybe none so much as the youth and previously unknown gifts of Hornsby himself, who hails from Indiana and holds an M.F.A. in fiction from the University of Michigan and an M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School. It showcased the author’s impressive grasp of Roman Catholic tradition as well as even headier subsets of the same tradition, such as monasticism and mysticism.
Via Negativa drew ample notice and some incoming fire from both religious and secular media outlets. It also left readers with the intriguing question of where a writer with such a uniquely flavored debut might turn next.
The answer is, apparently, toward the world of big tech, the punk scene of southern California, some weird form of vampirism and the eternal pursuit of, well, immortality. Naturally!
Daniel Hornsby’s new page-turning novel Sucker spins the heads of Luddites like myself in the areas of advanced technology, biology or way-underground punk rock.
Hornsby’s new page-turning novel Sucker is an eclectic blend of the aforementioned elements, sometimes enough to spin the heads of Luddites like myself in the areas of advanced technology, biology or way-underground punk rock. But it’s also a toothy (sorry) satire that is consistently funny, a sobering screengrab of our wealth- and power-obsessed nation. And while I felt the book came close to sailing overboard en route to its dizzying conclusion, I was impressed with its wit and audacity.
Sucker is narrated by the smart-aleck, silver-spoon-fed Chuck Gross, formerly Charles Grossheart, the namesake (but not, pointedly, the first-born) of a billionaire owner of a vast, international corporation that trucks in oil products, labor exploitation and far-right crusades. Gross decides from an early age in a privileged but loveless environment that he would like nothing more than to “prune himself from the family tree.” Yet it turns out to be challenging to sever oneself entirely from immense, generational wealth and all of its trappings, as Gross learns at every turn. So he capitalizes on his advantages to establish, what else, a punk rock record label that is beginning to thrive, despite the work-averse Gross’s best efforts, as this fast-paced novel unfolds.
A problem for Gross is that he is increasingly estranged from his unloving clan and its circle—not just his monster of a father but also a drug-addled and distant mother, a feckless older brother, and various “handlers.” So he leaps at a sudden opportunity to reconnect with an old Harvard (where else?) classmate-turned-tech-maven named Olivia Watts.
Watts—a kind of younger, female, perhaps more interesting amalgam of Steve Jobs and the shadowy, hoodie-wearing Kalden in Dave Eggers’s tech novel The Circle—has parlayed her doctorate in “bio-something,” her grueling experience as a cancer survivor and her own considerable vision into a rising tech-medicine outfit called Kenosis (wink, wink). She credits her collegiate friendship with Gross with some of the inspiration behind her grand enterprise, which the latter comes to view, reasonably, with skepticism.
The crucial innovation driving Kenosis is the invention of a tiny implant, a bean-like object capable of generating “microfluidic protein assays”—essentially gathering biometrics and diagnostic data using the body’s own energy as fuel. In its early stage, the device is only able to retrieve information, but through aggressive research and development, the ambition is to use it as a revolutionary treatment for cancer and other diseases. The public-facing mission of this technology is to allow humans to live much longer and healthier lives.
Hornsby repeatedly finds ways to engage the broader implications that emerge from a story having to do with technology, capitalism and the aspiration to prolong human lives.
Gross is hired as a “creative consultant,” the sort of role he inhabits easily, since he’s never really had to work much. But he’s no dummy, even if he is vapid and lippy, so it is not long before he begins to wonder what he’s really doing there. Is he simply a bridge to his reviled father’s money and resources? Or does Watts intend to groom him for and later initiate him into a far more sinister and outlandish design?
Our less-than-heroic protagonist spends the remainder of this twisty and sometimes breathless novel playing everyone around him—investigating his own suspicions of Watts and Kenosis; alchemizing the tragic but timely disappearance of a punk singer into profits for his record label; and sticking it to his “evil” father. What he turns up starts weird and gets weirder. By the time we encounter mutant animals, underground cave networks and an ancient order of new-agey vampires, Sucker has us rockin’ and rollin’, hanging on for dear life.
Hornsby doesn’t quite perform this gyrating mosh on a high wire without some errant steps. There are some cardboardy, thuggish villains in this story, as well as a handful of writerly misfires here and there, such as likening an errant piece of pepperoni on a shirt to a “medal awarded for bravery in the field of pizza.”
More important to this reader, though, Hornsby brings a considerable wealth of insight and inquiry into this fun but stimulating entertainment. It is here where readers of his first novel will recognize its author, who repeatedly finds ways to engage the broader implications that naturally emerge from a story having to do with technology, capitalism and the aspiration to prolong human lives.
At one point, while contemplating the vastness of the Pacific relative to those lives, a key character in Sucker inquires, “How can we get something done with so little time?” It’s an enduring conundrum, of course—the solution to which, as Hornsby’s winning second novel reminds us afresh, is likely to remain out of our hands.