With a few novels under his belt, Minneapolis literatus Bart Schneider tackles a type of local mystery fiction that swings somewhere between the present and the future…the very, very near future. Set during the National Republican Convention (coming to the Twin Cities in September), Schneider’s novel The Man in the Blizzard follows the character of Augie Boyer, an almost-to-seed private investigator dealing with a handful of personal issues alongside his fight against the right-wing hyper-conservative forces of evil. A liberal writer’s cliché? Maybe, but the story is just complex enough that there may be something for other ideologies, if one looks hard enough.
At the outset, the reader finds out about Augie’s gluttony, his sinking testosterone, his impending divorce, and his pot addiction. Add to this a mysterious blonde violinist, some poetry-quoting cops, and a complicated neo-Nazi plot, and the narrative becomes almost laughable in its unreality. On the other hand, that might just be what Schneider intends; the tone of the narrative consistently swings somewhere between irreverence, melodrama, and emotional realism. The characters themselves seem to be extraordinarily witty, not unlike jesters and servants in Shakespearean plays that can spin double entendres with the best of them. At times, Augie invokes the spirit of a middle-aged male Juno. Incidentally, the novel references that movie anyway.
The book is loaded with unashamedly proud references to Twin Cities perks, figures, and pop culture. A reader living in Minneapolis or St. Paul will most likely feel a warm smugness as they recognize the hip locations frequented by the characters: the Walker Sculpture Garden’s bridge, shops on Eat Street, Micawber’s, and many others. Barring the fact that not one of the characters ever visits the Mall of America, the novel could actually double as a rather excellent tourist guidebook. The fact that the characters know this much about their two cities-and all the related history and current events besides-borders on the unrealistic, and probably channels Schneider’s own educated background. Unfortunately, it might distance readers who are not used to such hyper-drive intellect shooting at them from fictional personalities.
Then again, the characters together have good synergy. They form a sort of colorful Breakfast Club-type collective, which seems to be universally appealing to commercial audiences. Along with that, there are some moments of rather sweet emotion (e.g. a conversation between Augie and his estranged wife Nina at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts). The few conversations that actually seem natural and unpracticed are the bright spots of the novel, the places where the reader can actually relate to the characters. The Man in the Blizzard is also overtly political in nature; opinions voiced in the dialogue have very thin veils. In writing a novel that takes place in a hugely political situation, Schneider could have chosen to make the political conflict more complex in nature. Instead, he seems to perpetuate the tired stereotypes of the Christian fundamentalist right-wings and the loose, hippy liberalists, presumably to create more of the us-versus-them mentality that pervades crime fiction. Closer inspection does reveal moments of cognitive dissonance (Augie’s punk-liberal assistant regrets her past abortion), but the novel could have done much more with all the gray areas that make up true-to-life politics and true-to-life…well…life.
This novel and genre is a venture into uncharted territory compared to Schneider’s past novels (largely historical fiction). To take that risk is commendable. The story is entertaining and full of vivid details, and the marketing tactic of releasing it slightly before its time setting is clever. Schneider does an admirable job of guessing at the near future, wrapping his hypotheses neatly into the narrative. Add these positives to the purer scenes of ordinary life, and The Man in the Blizzard could certainly be worth a read.
The Man in the Blizzard will be released August 5.