BOOK REVIEW: Mr. Neutron by Joe Ponepinto

What would you do if you were living in a small American city and Frankenstein’s monster ran for mayor? What would you do if you were in that same town, but working for a candidate that was sure to lose? Would you do whatever you could to inform the populace that the person they are globbing on to is in fact a monster? In Joe Ponepinto’s satirical story of small town politics, Mr. Neutron, we get to watch as a milquetoast character tries his best to save a town that doesn’t want to be saved.

The town in question is the imaginary town of Grand River. A polluted, down on its luck, stumbling on its last leg type of town that happens to be getting ready to elect a new mayor. Gray Davenport, our protagonist, is working as an intern for the campaign of a bumbling idiot that is more focused on stuffing his face than being mayor. On the other side of the ballot is Elvis Vega, a sleazy politician that is working for two men that are pretty much stand-ins for the Koch brothers. And finally, the wildcard comes stomping in on size 23 boots, a pieced together body, and a stolen brain. His name is Reason, which works quite well for his slogans, “Standing with Reason” or “Together we will do great things for this city.” He’s an eight foot tall monster that has a magnetic personality that pulls in most of the town, despite the fact that it appears a mad scientist is controlling him.

It all seems like a great mix for a fun story, however, I think something is lost in translation.

I had a hard time getting into the story, mainly due to the fact that Gray spends an awful lot of time in his head. And we are stuck in there with him the entire time. You know that guy that mutters to himself about how great he is, yet never speaks up, and no one knows their name? That sums up Gray. After a while, I found myself hoping that he’d just leave the town and we could follow someone else. The majority of the book is him whining about how life is terrible and nothing works for him. It’s not fun to be with someone like that for an entire story.

Ponepinto does a great job making you feel sorry for Gray, at first. His wife joins Reason’s team, then kicks him out of his own house, forcing him to move into a seedy motel, and the campaign he is working on is a train wreck. Anytime he tries to share an opinion or comes up with a plan, someone talks over him, doesn’t hear him, or uses these ideas for their own means. I know he seems like someone you can root for, but it becomes a slog fest watching Gray imagine doing great things but never actually doing them.

Gray isn’t alone in his quest to help Grand River. A beautiful woman named Breeze enters his life, which causes Gray to fall over himself trying to sleep with her. Then there is the hotel owner, Randy, who is probably the most interesting character, besides the monster. The little band of misfits push Gray into exposing the monster, or honestly do anything other than mope around in the hotel room pining after Breeze. She was a perfect foil for Gray, blocking any advance he tried on her, which, trust me, is about every time he talked to her. After a while it became awkward and not funny. Randy and Breeze helped move the story along and kept you from being bogged down from woe-is-me Gray.

I did enjoy the concept of having a monster run for mayor. It definitely gave us the satire the story sold us on. A big dumb thing spouting catchphrases that don’t mean anything is a perfect analogy for almost any election day. Ponepinto does a good job in making you wonder if he is a monster or if Gray is imagining it, yet we discover that he is in fact a monster. But the crazy thing that I think could have been explored more is the fact that no one seemed shocked. There were no pitchforks or villagers running around with fire. Seemed like it was a normal thing for the dead to come back to life. Reason does turn out to be a sad character, just like in Mary Shelly’s book, and by the end of the story you feel for him and hope things turn out okay.

I hate having to give a book a bad review. I appreciate the work that goes into putting your heart out on the page and handing it to the world. But, sometimes a story just doesn’t work. I think in this case, there was a bit too much navel gazing and a lot less satirical gazing at a campaign. Give us the monster, give us a corrupt group running a city through shady means, give us a bumbling man that can’t win, focus on this instead of limp character that no one will care for. The concept is there, just buried under a lot of stuff we don’t need.

Mr. Neutron is available to purchase from 7.13 Books here.

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Joe Ponepinto

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Joe Ponepinto’s novel, Mr. Neutron, will be published by 7.13 Books in spring 2018. He is the co-Publisher and Fiction Editor of Tahoma Literary Review. His short stories have been published in dozens of literary journals in the U.S. and abroad, one of which was the winner of the Tiferet: Literature, Art & the Creative Spirit 2016 fiction contest. Joe lives in Washington State with his wife, Dona, and Henry the coffee-drinking dog. He teaches at Tacoma Community College.

My editing experience covers more than 20 years, from a career as a journalist to my current publishing role. I specialize in literary and mainstream works, and am available for developmental editing and manuscript assessment. Please see my editing site at Third Reader.

Reviewed by Matthew Brandenburg

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