Review: Dead Heat to Destiny: Three Lives and a Spy, by J.B. Rivard
Anyone who’s joined a beginners’ writers workshop knows the difficulty of reviewing prose that is nowhere near polished. It’s awkward, stressful even, trying to devise cogent thoughts about art that appears to have none. Good criticism delves into the narrator’s voice, the piece’s structure, literary devices: meaty particulars that excite writers and careful readers. But when you’re given something clunky and amateurish—so flawed that the only emotion it provokes is secondhand embarrassment, for the author—what else can you say except try again? That was my experience reading the historical fiction novel Dead Heat to Destiny: Three Lives and a Spy by J.B. Rivard.
Dead Heat to Destiny follows the exploits of four dull characters as they survive, thrive, and find love during World War One. Gregor Steiner is a piano prodigy who abandons his art to become a submarine commander for the German Navy. Adrienne Boch, Gregor’s cousin, is a talented dress designer who ascends the ladder of Paris fashion. Will Marra, an aeronautics expert and Adrienne’s admirer, leverages his charm and intelligence to propel the United States’ forces to the skies. Also, there’s Bruno Ackermann, a spy or something, who does spy stuff in Panama. To be honest his chapters were especially boring and seemed inconsequential. Learning how these stories evolve and collide, at least in theory, creates the exciting tension at the thriller’s bedrock.
The primary problem is Rivard’s book lacks the fundamentals that make for vivid storytelling. There are techniques and approaches authors use to turn symbols on a page into vivid mental images. It’s kind of their job. A good example is sensory details. When we read a good book, or even a competent one, the author grounds us in the story’s action by triggering our senses. People and places don’t just look a certain way; they also smell, sound, and taste a certain way. To get the reader hooked, authors explore those perceptions through purposefully chosen details. Without those ingredients, book margins become full of notes like, “Where are we?” “What’s going on?” My Dead Heat to Destiny annotations certainly included a few of those.
Take for example the scene where Gregor rescues a man from drowning: “The petty officer at the tiller of the dinghy directed the rowing sailors. The dinghy approached the partly-submerged head of a man. The sailors threw their oars aside and joined the gunnel, reaching into the water to grip the man’s garments and body. The petty officer yelled encouragement while leaning far back on the opposite gunnel to prevent a capsize.”
At best this is a good first draft. The writing is serviceable insofar that a reader can understand what’s going on, probably. But any editor worth their salt would have pressed the author to fill in some of the gaps. What does the water feel like? Is it cold? The boat might capsize, does that mean it’s shaky? How are the men feeling? Are they nervous? Incorporating those sensory details puts the reader in the action. Without them we just glaze over the words waiting for the next major plot development.
Authors can sometimes overcome these shortcomings if they have more to offer. Some books irritate on a line-by-line basis but keep us reading with interesting characters or a compelling story. Dead Heat to Destiny, however, is not that exception.
Every character speaks in the same officious, disengaged voice. They wander from scene to scene trading tepid exposition. The tutor Jozef says to Will during a lesson, “Your father has told me about what happened before you came to Paris. You were in America, in Iowa. Your mother became very sick and died. That was approximately three years ago, if I am correct.” You know, a natural conversation people have with eight-year-olds.
Reading the book is a bit like being cornered at a party by the evening’s most boring guest. Rivard leashes us through seemingly pointless small talk, instructions about the finer points of writing telegrams, and lectures about submarine mechanics. Meanwhile, the action sequences upon which the novel stakes its value are quick, uninspired, and separated by vast swathes of waiting.
Rivard laid the pieces for a riveting story: war, romance, espionage. Maybe with a few more editorial passes we could have seen it (the story). What we have instead is a fragmented, underwhelming attempt.
Dead Heat to Destiny: Three Lives and a Spy is available at bookstores.