Midnight Departure, by Dan Lombard, self published (www.amazon.com), 2012, 190 pages, $14.00
It has become apparent to me recently that I must have a soft spot for train wrecks – I’m referring in particular to books, that is, terrible books, unabashed hot messes that couldn’t be saved, not even under the principle of the infinite monkey theorem by a thousand monkeys at a thousand keyboards (see, for example, the debacle Mount Diablo: Murder Maybe I reviewed in 2014). These are the books whose authors have the dubious distinction of having tossed the “litter” in literature. So when I learned of a thriller that tackled California’s controversial High Speed Train project, I eagerly put on my corpse-handling gloves and set to it. Needless to say, Midnight Departure did not disappoint.
I won’t deny it – I devoured the book feverishly in three days. I might even have finished it sooner had I not needed to set my book down every other page to take careful notes of every grammar gaffe and dead herring. And no, that’s not a typo; I’m coining a phrase, here and now, to describe what might traditionally be described as a “red” herring except that these purported misdirections – which begin as veiled foreshadowing but unerringly disintegrate with flimsy plotting into gaping plot holes – do nothing more than stink up the room like dead herrings. In fact, to consider these herrings of any species is specious and, in itself, an insult to herrings alive or dead. But more on that later.
By 1:30AM of Day 3 (really, it was Day 4 if you account for the fact that I read through the night just to finish the damn thing), I had scribbled down three thoughts I felt best characterized my experience. I polled my friends and it was all but unanimous that this said it best:
“To say this book has any sort of plot is like shaking a box of loose Legos and taking credit for any pieces that come out stuck together.”
In second place was this coinage:
“Even if I went out of my way to call this wan thriller a dime store novel, I’d still expect nine cents in change for my trouble.”
And in response to my personal favorite:
“This pulp fiction faux pas is such a blatant hatchet job, Gary Paulsen should sue the author for intellectual property theft.”
…one friend suggested I swap beloved children’s author Gary Paulsen for Tyree Smith.
Ugh. Too soon? Talk about rubbing “bath salts” in an open wound, am I right? I’ll give you a moment to collect yourself before we board this train.
Midnight Departure is the brainchild of author Dan Lombard, a man who believes that a “thriller” (a phrase I use lightly) about graft and corruption in the fictional California SwiftRail Authority is the ideal vehicle for an exposé on California’s current fracas over fast funiculars, more commonly known as the High Speed Train project. It becomes clear early on that Lombard is no fan of the High Speed Train. Through the eyes of the book’s fauxtagonist (what else do you call an unlikeable protagonist?), Lombard describes the fictitious California SwiftRail Authority as “waterboarding, a 5,000 piece monotone jigsaw puzzle and the Bataan Death March all wrapped up in one” which, aptly enough, also described my experience reading Midnight Departure. Later, the fauxtagonist describes his sadventures as “a comedy of errors that started with some bad sushi and just kept getting worse,” which again aptly describes Midnight Departure.
As I settled in to read, I began taking meticulous notes. But it wasn’t long before I discovered that the previous owner of my copy of Midnight Departure had done the same thing in the margins. While I had fast become sidetracked marking up the book’s shortcomings, I was delighted to find that my Mystery Reader had thoughtfully called out what I can only imagine must have been – to them – purported “facts” (they’re so ridiculous, let’s just agree right now to call them faux facts, or “fauxts”). As aimless as they were confusing, these fauxts were almost charming in their baselessness. Charming, that is, until it dawned on me that someone had thought to use Midnight Departure as a reference guide.
Midnight Departure is built not so much on a plot as it is a plod, a clumsy, cumbersome trudge through the sadventures and sexploits of Bob Jones, employee and unwitting pawn of California SwiftRail Authority director Tom Bates. In his first move toward check-mating the citizens of California, Tom is counting on Bob to rubberstamp everything that crosses his desk, all part of Tom’s super-secret, for-your-eyes-only mission that only his cabal of business tycoons and construction moguls know about. Well, the cabal and Bob, who experiences an out-of-the-blue interior monologue moment on page 38 wherein he recounts Tom’s super-secret plan as though reading straight from CliffsNotes, even though Bob is supposed to be Tom’s unknowing, hapless flunky.
Thankfully for his reader (not a typo), Lombard spells out the titillating title’s meaning on page 11 so as not to mislead the reader into thinking it necessary to read to the end in the hopes of further enlightenment. In the first of many let-downs, we learn that codename Operation Midnight Departure – the brainchild of villian-mediocreinaire Tom Bates – is a project whose sole goal is to spend $14 billion in bonds and stimulus funds as quickly as possible beginning at midnight until there’s no turning back. Never mind that the super-secret-project hits its first roadblock when Tom tells his henchman the operation is a “go” shortly after 8:34 PM (no really; precisely four minutes after a clandestine 8:30 PM meeting with the governor), while not even seconds earlier he had been basking in the nefariousity of his cunning plan and its equally very-nefarious code name. Granted, it’s not as snappy, but after he up and blew the whole midnight thing, he might have at least considered instead codename Undertaking Postprandial Spending Spree in the spirit of technical accuracy.
Before we dive deeper into the good stuff (i.e. necrophilia, yellow face, and Axe Body Spray), this is as good a time as any to explore a pet peeve of mine: The choice of character names. I’ll admit, not every character name needs to be so unique they sound like a Tolkien elf (e.g. Celebrimbor), but some originality is always appreciated, like Lisbeth Salander, Ramona Quimby, Humbert Humbert, Mary Poppins, Tyler Durden, Walter (Walt) White. The alliteration, the nuances of symbolism, these things help shape the character they represent. But Bob Jones? Tom Bates? I can’t believe Lombard was tapping his craft to echo the “everyman”. Despite a flaccid attempt at breaking the fourth wall (“His name is Bob Jones. Really, it is. Can’t make that up” [Ed. Note: yes, you can, it’s called exercising author’s privilege!]), the name choices are unpalatable.
The only thing sloppier than the name choices is the copyediting. And the only thing complicated about the characters or the plot they’re embroiled in is the word salad they’re wilting in. No one uses pronouns when they speak (“I’m leaving, take care of some personal business, be back in tomorrow” [p 150]), the pages are rotten with typos, and there are more plot holes and dead herrings than there are chapters. Take for instance, “…perhaps he would be someone he could turn down the road” (p 150), “1530 Clarkson Road In Concord” (p 171), “Whose it from?” (p 189), or “I’m actually in a a rush…” (p 174).
The number of unnecessary commas alone (e.g. “Tom raised an eyebrow in Bob’s direction, he didn’t need to, and wasn’t going to, answer the question.”) is enough to give a typesetter arthritis.
And this moment of reflection left me grinding my teeth: “[Bob] stood up and walked into the bathroom, staring at himself in the mirror… Bob smiled widely. His reflection smiled back.” Yes, traditionally, that’s how mirrors work.
And those dead herrings? In accordance with the dramatic principle known as Chekhov’s Gun, a gun hanging over the mantle in Act 1 should be fired by Act 3. But too often to count, Lombard leaves an arsenal of guns hanging over an English manor’s worth of mantles unfired, calling out details so specific, they could only be intentional. Except there was no intent intended.
Like when, early in our sadventure, Tom steps out of his office, “making straight for the elevator and the ride down the single story to the lobby, ignoring the wide, richly carpeted staircase that could also have taken him down that single flight.”
Climacophobia – the fear of climbing stairs? Did someone get a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for Christmas?
Foreshadowing? Of what – an HGTV Home Makeover?
Or there’s the scene where Bob lets a dossier fall to the table with a thud, prompting Tom to caution him that loud noises like that could bring the armed highway patrolman outside the apartment door crashing down on them like ugly on an ape. But trust me – the only things the Ponch and Jons between these pages do is bumble into the climaxes of chase scenes to issue a speeding ticket to a hit man or to detain Authority director Tom until an EMT arrives to give him a wellness check (Say “ahhh”).
The one time someone fires the gun on the mantle, it takes the form of an incongruous children’s bouncy ball that oh-so-very-obviously changes hands as a “good luck charm” with all the subtly of a coyote in a henhouse only to make an appearance later during Bob’s yellow-bellied escape from Tokyo.
At its angry, shriveled heart, Midnight Departure is ultimately about how a public agency might betray the people’s trust. So, how do you blow $14 million sawbucks? On cuh-razy things like a $9,000 office window or a $500,000 “green” (?) logo. Still, for a man hell-bent on spending mucho moolah, Tom’s idea of a spending spree seems pretty tame – a new Dodge Charger (white) and Nissan Pathfinder (white) – especially when he has to fire a security guard to scrape together the cash. Even a despicable cartoon villain like Felonius “Gru” knows that firing a minion to ease up on the payroll defeats the purpose of dipping into the petty cash on his way to stealing the moon. That’s not how villainy – or overspending – works.
Other betrayals, like undermining basic human decency, are even less forgivable. In a groundless leap of faith, I began to hope that if the way Bob ran his elevator eyes over anything in a skirt was any indication of his prowess in bed, it was only a matter of time until our fauxtagonist could prove himself undercover (if you know what I mean <wink>). My wish came true in all the wrong ways during a scene where he hooks up with Sabrina, a Japanese escort, during a business trip. The scene is so awkward, the sterile climax amounts to Bob observing that she has no scent, “as if he had just buried his face in her freshly scrubbed hands.” It is only after waking up the next morning, and reflecting that her becoming “increasingly motionless and limpid during their passion” was surely due to his being “such a good lover that he just plain wore her out,” that he notices she’s dead.
Wait, what? This blatant act of necrophilia goes otherwise unremarked in the book? Yes, yes, Bob had sex with a corpse, nothing to see here, carry on.
This is just one example of the chest-thumping chauvinism that permeates the pages of Midnight Departure like Axe Body Spray in a high school locker room. Almost without exception, every woman is ogled and sized up like cattle in a stockyard. This flesh market begins in the California SwiftRail Authority’s office when Bob is introduced to his receptionist, Kiko. Sadly (because this, I will come to learn, is what passes as “character” development), without prompting Tom kindly lets Bob down easy that Kiko is married – Bob: “Happily married?”; Tom: “The best I can tell, yes.” – but concludes their locker room heart-to-heart by reassuring Bob that there are plenty of women, married or otherwise unencumbered, to pick from, as though the office was some buffet where lady fingers and Steak Diane are dishes of another sort altogether.
I’d as soon let mold grow on me before I’d let Bob Jones, so unsympathetically is he painted in the first few pages. Bob, the man who is purportedly this story’s hero, is at one time or another a pervert, an internet stalker, a lecher, or a necrophiliac. For example, this is a guy who puts a peephole in his soon-to-be ex-wife’s bedroom to watch her lesbian trysts, itself a tired, clichéd plot twist that wives who leave their husbands do so because they are lesbians, rather than because they realize they married total creepers.
Adding Yin to his Yang, Lombard makes sure to balance his glorification of over-sexed men with an equal serving of deplorification of the LGBTQ community and a caricature-ization of Asians. First, there is the non-sequitur throwaway moment in which Tom tells Bob that he has to ask their consultants if they are gay – why this is relevant never becomes clear, but it clearly checked a box on someone’s agenda. Then Lombard introduces a gay lawyer. Who’s dying of AIDS. Because that’s how gay lawyers die. Of AIDS. (<cough> Philadelphia <cough>.) But nothing tops the cringe-worthy yellow face moment when Bob resorts to applying bronzer makeup in the back of a Sashimi restaurant to escape the Yakuza.
The one time Lombard sets his sights on environmental issues, his treatment betrays either his naivety or sheer, willful ignorance of the permitting/mitigation banking process or general natural history. On the occasion in question, Bob visits the Altamont Pass – home to numerous wind farms – to help site a future tunnel boring in response to a three-year lawsuit over some “endangered species of lizard.” Once there, however, Bob waxes synthetic about wind energy’s missed mitigation bank credit opportunity – selling credits to developers because the wind farm’s turbines kill golden eagles that might otherwise kill California tiger salamanders (= not a lizard). By this misinformed logic loop, with each thwack-hawk-down, wind farms are saving salamanders; they’re paying it forward, really.
The erratic incongruities of Midnight Departure are writ large. At the conclusion of a key car chase, Tom – stranded on the side of the freeway – attempts to commandeer a highway patrolman using his deputation (a power Lombard omnipotently pencils into the narrative on the spot) by the Governor of California as an honorary member of the highway patrol. If that Deus ex machina maneuver isn’t awkward enough, the highway patrolman unflinchingly ignores Tom and Lombard and makes his boss sit in the naughty corner until the EMTs arrive, a move that Tom immediately acquiesces to like a Stormtrooper who has been told those aren’t the droids he’s looking for. And then there is the assassination attempt that is thwarted when the assassin is pulled over for speeding, all in the course of two brief paragraphs. It just dawned on me that Lombard’s CHP officers are effectively Stormtroopers ripped from the screenplay of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (a revelation that in hindsight seems more of a compliment than it was intended to be).
Ever the poster child of heightened perception, Bob, the same guy who has sex with a corpse and married a lesbian, inexplicably uncovers a money-laundering scheme between the President and the Authority’s contractors based on nothing more than a handshake in a local mega-church. Bob is also the same guy who later self-importantly jumps to the surprisingly-astute-yet-unfounded conclusion that someone tried to murder him with a serving of fugu (the Japanese pufferfish dish that can be fatal if the toxic tetrodotoxin poison is not properly removed), even though the dish might just as well have been prepared incorrectly. Step aside, Jessica Fletcher, Bob Jones is on the case.
In what he no doubt thought was an act of cunning daring-doo, Lombard uses two phone numbers in the story that – when you Google them – turn out to be those of Jerry Brown and Nancy Pelosi, a bold Easter-egg-of-a-move that unintentionally but very appropriately likens Midnight Departure to the bathroom stall wall of a public school bathroom.
When it comes at long last to the story’s climax, Lombard does exciting like an alcoholic does sober. As the story stumbles toward its feckless finish, Midnight Departure transforms itself into a parody of a spy film with a cigar tube that detects metal (if only it could detect the cheese or corn in this sad excuse for a plot), a kill switch in a speeding car operated by a mobile phone, and the big reveal of a sting operation so all-encompassing, forgettable B-side characters from throughout the story make an unnecessary, triumphant return as federal agents.
It’s been said, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. So if I had to say something nice about Midnight Departure, it would be that there were parts that reminded me of John Grisham’s The Firm, but only insomuch as the unending “action” scenes where Bob is blindly signing stacks of papers and naively burning through the California SwiftRail Authority’s (and taxpayer’s) dollars to drive the plot forward is about as riveting as Mitch McDeere photocopying legal briefs.