Rock Manning Goes for Broke by Charlie Jane Anders
The thing I loved the most about Rock Manning Goes for Broke, the 2018 novella by Charlie Jane Anders, is the narrative voce of Rock himself. Here are the opening lines:
Earliest I remember, Daddy threw me off the roof of our split-level house. “Boy’s gotta learn to fall sometime,” he told my mom just before he slung my pants seat and let me go.
That’s the flavor of this brief, fast-paced, action-packed dystopian, heroic dark comedy and kinda-love story.
Dad is not a psycho, or maybe he is, but he is also a stuntman, teaching his sons the trade. Rock gets older and enters school, where his class-clown antics bring him to the attention of the school bully, and also to the new girl Sally, who wants to make films. We learn in bits and pieces that the American society around Rock and his school mates is crumbling, and there is something ominous in his older brother’s careful preparation for joining the army, but mostly we follow Sally and Rock and they make daredevil films for the internet (and Rock dodges the bully, Ricky).
Soon Sally and Rock, who are famous for their short internet films, finish school. Ricky and his gang, with their red bandanas, become official enforcers for a corrupt and vicious government. Their bullying is not only condoned, it’s rewarded. Rock gets a job in a convenience store and nurses his apparently unrequited crush on Sally while things careen from worse to worst, and then there is a global catastrophe, the discharge of an experimental weapon, that literally changes everything in the world. I thought this was well foreshadowed and startlingly original.
For the first two-thirds of this 120-page story, our narrator rockets along (“I was kind of a hyper kid,” he drops as an aside, once) as Rock makes his films and tries to avoid Ricky. Rock Manning Goes for Broke slows down post-catastrophe, and one of the best parts in the story is when Rock goes back to the convenience store. He opens it up. He says that he only does it to have something to do, but soon people come in and he begins selling water, food and essentials. People thank him for giving them an alternative to looting. This could be a sentimental and unbelievable moment, but it isn’t, it’s authentic, because by now we believe that Rock is this kind of a decent guy. And we know the quiet moment won’t last.
The final passages are a tour-de-force of chase scenes, and the story ends the way stories of rebels who challenge corrupt power structures often end. This is not to say that there isn’t hope. The final text from Sally to Rock gives hope to the badly damaged world they live in.
As you all know, I’m stingy with 5-star reviews. This garners one because the writer attempted stylistic and structural gymnastics, and delivered completely on that attempt. The narrative voice carries a story that covers several years and in a more traditional narrative would run hundreds of pages. We never know the details here, but we know what happened.
Rock Manning Goes for Broke is a strange little tale, but it’s compelling. Anders has a genuine gift for finding currents in popular culture and using them to tell larger tales about responsibility, community and courage. She does it well here, and (pardon the paradox) worked so hard to develop both this story and the narrative voice that it seems like she didn’t work at all — Rock’s monologue (that’s basically what the story is) seems fluid and effortless. That’s the mark of a brilliant writer. Rock Manning Goes for Broke is terrifying, dark, sometimes funny and always filled with heart.