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Bad Man

Review

Bad Man

BAD MAN will slowly but surely creep you out. It takes one of the worst experiences a person can have, magnifies it, shoves the results in the reader’s face and ratchets it up a notch or three. Dathan Auerbach --- who attracted attention in all of the right places with his debut novel, PENPAL --- wrings terror out of the every day and every night of the semi-urban Florida Panhandle and makes the world stop for the time it takes to read this work, which by turns will stop and speed up your heartbeat.

The premise is basic enough; actually, it can’t get any more basic. Ben, an overweight and somewhat awkward teenager, takes his three-year-old brother, Eric, to a local supermarket. Eric disappears. One minute he is there, standing next to Ben in the store, and the next minute he is nowhere to be found. Ben begins looking for him immediately, but Eric is gone and stays that way.

Five years later, Ben is 20 and a high school graduate. Eric is still missing. Auerbach describes perfectly the painful and depressive nooks and crannies that have burrowed into Eric’s family and taken irrevocable root at its foundation. Attempting to help with the family’s terminal finances, Ben takes a job as a third shift stockman at the same grocery store where Eric disappeared. Anyone who has ever done such work knows what is involved, and Auerbach nails it once again, incorporating the drudgery of late-night work into the quiet terror that resonates across the interval since Eric’s disappearance.

"BAD MAN will slowly but surely creep you out. It takes one of the worst experiences a person can have, magnifies it, shoves the results in the reader’s face and ratchets it up a notch or three."

About a quarter of the way into the book, Auerbach lights a flare and then tosses a hand grenade into the proceedings, and from there it’s anyone’s guess as to how things are going to wind up, although we can probably bet on “unhappily.” There is also something physically and intellectually wrong with Ben. The “what” of the physical problem is revealed before we get the “why.” The intellectual problem is hinted at here and there before it is explained as well.

Meanwhile, Ben never seems to give up on finding his brother, long after his family and the police have resigned themselves to his absence…or worse. On an intermittent basis, he posts and passes out handbills of the “Missing” and “Have you seen me?” type, seemingly to no avail. One of Ben’s coworkers at the supermarket helps him, but might have an agenda of his own that is not fully understood. Ben still doesn’t really get anywhere, but things start happening. We learn that there were incidents that occurred in the five years between Eric’s disappearance and the book’s present that resonate loudly into what is occurring now and what is about to. And just as Ben is compelled to keep searching for Eric when he probably shouldn’t, you will want to keep reading when you probably should stop.

You could call BAD MAN a horror novel, but the chills don’t begin and end with Eric’s disappearance. There is an overlaying and unrelenting grimness to its backdrop, with everyone even peripherally involved in the story being trapped in the lower class morass of their existence without the material or spiritual means to extricate themselves. Auerbach’s work has been compared to early Stephen King, and while I don’t know if that is accurate from a stylistic standpoint, one could certainly draw a ragged line between King’s accounts of the Whites and the Torrances and the incidental despair that Auerbach demonstrates here. There’s another similarity as well. Auerbach does for supermarkets what King did for resort hotels, nurses, dogs and clowns.

It is perfectly understandable if, after reading BAD MAN, you never want to take your child to a supermarket again. You may not want to go yourself. Read and enjoy, but at your own risk.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 10, 2018

Bad Man
by Dathan Auerbach

  • Publication Date: August 7, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Horror, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0385542925
  • ISBN-13: 9780385542920