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Review: World, Chase Me Down, by Andrew Hilleman
Penguin, 2017. 332 pp. $16

Like Pat Crowe, the hero of this brash, rambunctious novel about power and reputation set mostly in Omaha around the turn of the last century, the author breaks a lot of rules and gets away with it. You have to admire that, and World, Chase Me Down is a lot of fun, proof that there’s nothing like a character who does and says what readers can only fantasize about. But it’s not just the audacity to tell off corrupt authorities or rob rich people, as Pat does, which makes him attractive. Bravado and violence wear thin, eventually, no matter what purpose they serve. Rather, despite however many rules of storytelling Hilleman ignores, he burnishes one to a high luster–his protagonist’s feelings for the poor and downtrodden, which earn the reader’s respect and sympathy.

Omaha, Nebraska, as it appeared in 1914 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

As the novel opens, Pat reflects on his life in 1939. As most of you must know by now, retrospect is just about my least favorite narrative technique. I’ve always suspected that prologues are the refuge of authors who lack confidence in their readers and themselves, fearing that unless they offer a teaser of future action or tension, no one will sit still for their story. But only a bond with characters can keep me reading; curiosity about the story isn’t enough.

So I’ll say this for Hilleman: His prologue throws down a gauntlet. He’s not interested in teasing anybody; he tells you most of what happens in World, Chase Me Down before it’s three pages old and defies you to put the book aside. But it’s not just his daring, like Pat’s, that draws you in and keeps you turning the pages. It’s that by the second sentence, both Pat and his creator have you in their grasp through a shocking admission. For the past twenty years, Pat says, “I’ve been puzzling my way back to humanity,” but will be remembered, if at all, for perhaps the “foulest of all crimes”–kidnapping a child. That touch of humility, his acknowledgment that he has much to atone for, elevates him above and earns greater sympathy than a garden-variety criminal, trickster, or rebel whose freedom to tweak (or punch) any nose he desires.

That said, it’s no mean feat to tell a story that offers few surprises in plot and still make it work. How does Hilleman pull it off?

First, he’s got a pig-headed protagonist. Pat hears a lot of good advice and ignores nearly all of it, to his terrible cost. He never learns, either, to guard himself against his impulses, but that’s part of his charm as well as his undoing. So you know that trouble will come, but you don’t know how. The “no; and furthermore” gambit is alive and well in these pages. But none of that would work if you didn’t see Pat struggle with himself as much as his circumstances, and Hilleman takes care to show this.

Also, even if Hilleman has revealed early on what happens, you don’t know how Pat will adjust to it until you get there, and the author takes care to show that too. Consider the moment after Pat visits Ed Cudahy, Omaha meat-packing baron and father of the boy Pat intends to kidnap:

It would take an equal or perhaps even greater measure of villainy to expose what I hated most about the villainous world. The children in rags who came pawing at the gigantic carriages parked along the decorated boulevards, and the men inside who tossed out a few coins on the street only to shoo the children away. The stockyarders who worked for half a dollar a day only to have to pay twice that for the same meat they labored over to fill their families’ tables.

I wish I saw Billy Cavanagh, Pat’s friend and partner in crime, as clearly. Billy’s a simple soul–give him a jug of whiskey, and he’s content–and the two men trade hilarious insults, bickering like a married couple. But I don’t understand why the glue between them should be as strong as it is, and Billy doesn’t grab me anywhere close to the way Pat does. Moreover, Pat’s magnanimity doesn’t extend to police who try to apprehend him and who, after all, are only doing their jobs; he wounds or kills them with nary a dash of empathy.

Still, World, Chase Me Down is a wonderful book–and for those who care about such things, Pat Crowe was a real person.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.