Book review: Abandon

AbandonAbandon by Blake Crouch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This review is full of spoilers, the way the hole under a lifted rock is full of bugs. Or something like that. If you want a short, non-spoiler review, read the next paragraph, then stop.

Abandon is well-written and has an intriguing premise–why did the 100+ inhabitants of a Colorado mining town suddenly disappear on Christmas Day in 1893?–that unravels once the mystery is revealed, and the plot gets hijacked by cartoonishly evil people, way too many coincidences and convenient acts of god. It’s a story about how isolation and greed affect people (hint: neither are good), but it fails to resonate because Crouch regularly undercuts the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief.

Spoilers ahead! The premise–and the fact that I enjoyed Crouch’s fun alternate reality romp Dark Matter–is what drew me to pick up Abandon. (It should be noted that Abandon is Crouch’s third novel, published in 2009, where Dark Matter came out in 2016.) Abandon establishes a structure where scenes jump from Christmas 1893 to late fall 2009 and back again. The present-day scenes follow Abigail Foster, who, along with her estranged father Lawrence, a ghost-hunting couple, and their guides, head up to Abandon to check the town out before the snows come and it becomes inaccessible until the spring.

Crouch starts unwinding things slowly and there’s some tension early on over whether anything actually supernatural might happen, especially in the present day. The 1893 scenes depict a town hit on hard times and winding down, its citizens poor and tired and about ready to, well, abandon Abandon. Crouch neatly handles the differences in dialect between the two time periods without making it seem forced or unnatural, though the citizens of Abandon tend to fancy the exact same expressions.

Where the story started to lose me was after the mystery got revealed–not because the mystery was gone, but because of what happens for the remainder of the novel. In 1893 the town’s preacher, Stephen Cole, goes mad because–well, he does (a brain tumor is hinted at). And God tells him to kill all the wicked heathens (the citizens of Abandon). Meantime, there’s a stash of Conquistador gold that’s been piled up and hidden in the area for a few hundred years and a couple of the locals look to make off with it.

Cole convinces the town that a marauding band of cannibal Indians is making its way to Abandon and everyone must hide in the mine above the town while they pass through. He escorts them all into the mine for safety (hehe), and then marshals some of the men to go meet the savages head-on. Cole shoots and kills the men. A few days later he returns to the mine with a team of burros carrying the gold. He dumps the gold off in an alcove inside the mine. Then he locks the impenetrable steel door for good, leaving the last few still alive to die.

One person manages to escape by getting boosted through a natural chimney by the barmaid due to be hanged in the spring–more on her fate in a bit.

From the 1893 side we see men who beat women, men who beat men and men willing to murder over gold or just because they’re plain loco.

In 2009…it’s mostly the same. It turns out Abagail’s father has lied about their trip to Abandon–he knows about the gold, and how it was never found. A small band of Iraqi vets (who maybe totally have PTSD) want him to lead them to it, then use everyone to help haul it out and be rich, hooray.

From here the 2009 scenes alternate between a kind of torture porn, with the group leader Isiah constantly threatening to hurt people, and sparing no detail in telling them how. He kills the husband of the ghost-hunting team to prove he’s a credible threat. After that the other members of the party–all of whom are evil or foolish, save Abigail, who is only kind of foolish–face various horrible ends.

There are several near-comedic scenes where Abigail and the others almost escape, but always get caught again. They finally think they’ve succeeded when Isiah and his right-hand man Jerrod go sliding off a cliff. But they can’t get close to the cliff edge to see the bodies. But they’re totally dead, right? Of course not. Convenient ledge.

But Isiah dispatches Jerrod because Jerrod is hurt and there’s no hope of rescue. Sorry, Jerrod! Isiah somehow gets down unscathed, spoiling for revenge/whatever. He also managed to hold onto his gun.

Meanwhile, the sudden appearance of a guy named Quinn startles, then delights Lawrence. He’s a big admirer of Lawrence’s work. What a coincidence they’d meet up at Abandon. Quinn has a key. Lawrence thinks some more and thinks he knows where the key might fit. Plus maybe gold. The three head up to the mine, unlock the magic door, and in that little alcove, there it is. While Lawrence and Abigail are exploring the mine–and finding the bones of the citizens of Abandon–Quinn helps himself to a bunch of gold, then uses the key to lock up that impenetrable steel door because he is super-evil.

Thus trapped, Lawrence and Abigail spend several days trying to find a way out. A veritable blizzard begins blanketing the mountain. They finally find a natural chimney and Lawrence is able to boost Abigail up high enough for her to climb out. She somehow makes her way back to Abandon, finds Scott in the old hotel, one of the guides thought to be dead, but who totally went ninja on his captor despite a grievous injury. They head out for Scott’s SUV, located miles down the mountain.

Quinn immediately pops up and gives chase, taking potshots with a rifle.

They evade until Scott finally has to get out of their hidden tent to take a poop. He then gets shot dead–by Isiah! Then Isiah starts to describe how he’s going to kill Abigail. He then gets shot dead–by Quinn! This is why guns are bad. So much shooting! At this point I thought the whole thing was just kind of ridiculous, but nearly everyone was now dead or stuck in a cave, so what else could happen?

Well, as it turns out, Abigail makes it to Scott’s SUV and peels off, just as Quinn arrives to get off a few more shots. He gets in another vehicle for a good ol’ car chase.

Meanwhile, in 1893, Lana Hartman, the mute piano-player, has escaped the mine, but Cole is on her like Quinn on Abigail, except slower, because they don’t have motor vehicles. He chases her on down through the snowy slopes of the mountain and though she falters, she never gives up. In the end she grows weak and stumbles and Cole–who has conscripted a seven year girl as his co-murderer (it’s easier to just not explain) is about to dispatch her when…an avalanche literally sweeps them all away, killing Cole, probably the girl, but leaving Lana relatively unscathed. Those darned convenient acts of god.

Lana pushes on through the snow and finally makes it to the town of Silverton, where she is brought to the hotel and treated by a local doctor, who regretfully has to amputate her legs and left arm due to the “mortification.” As she can’t talk, he gives her a notepad and she writes out the terrible tale of Abandon and also P.S. ALL THAT GOLD UP THERE. This is the doctor’s cue to reveal himself as super-evil. He knocks Lana unconscious, cuts off her good right arm, then signs her off to an insane asylum, because who knows what trouble a mute woman with three missing limbs might get up to when there’s gold to be found otherwise?

Somehow he never finds the gold, despite Lana earlier handing him the key to the mine door and telling him via the notepad to send a rescue party as there are children and such locked up there.

Back in 2009, Abigail arrives at…Silverton! Is she safe in civilization? No, Quinn is still hot on her trail. She dashes into a hotel and asks where the sheriff is, then tells the indifferent clerk to hide under the counter. Quinn comes in, huffs and puffs a bit, then leaves.

Abigail makes it the sheriff’s office or actually his home. Or maybe both? Anyway, his daughter Jennifer lets her in and for some reason Abigail clams up about her whole story, as if Quinn is suddenly not a threat. She finds an old book on a shelf and leafs through it. It’s that super-evil doctor’s journal from 1893! The sheriff spies her reading it and that’s when the drugged tea she was given kicks in. Turns out the Quinn is the sheriff’s son and they, along with Jennifer, are descendants of the super-evil doctor and have been hankering for that gold he never found. They are also super-evil, blithely willing to pass off multiple murders as a few days of bad behavior in exchange for lots and lots of gold.

They plan to take Abigail back up the mountain to make it look like she didn’t make it trying to get down through the snowy conditions. Instead, Abigail remembers she has her father’s Ruger stuffed in her pants (okay, it’s actually in her jacket, which the super-evil trio somehow failed to check), and even though she has 30 milligrams of Oxicodone–per Jennifer–coursing through her system, she manages to shoot and kill all three of them while completely zonked out.

THE END.

Except she goes on trial for murder, but then is found not guilty due to “mental defect.”

THE END.

Except I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the other details that just don’t add up. Abigail keeps quiet about the gold during the trial–confiding to her mother afterward how it brings out the worst in people (you think?) But it’s made clear earlier that multiple people knew about the gold and have been trying for more than a hundred years to find it. It doesn’t really seem that secret. Also, the drugged tea, the bullet holes in Scott’s SUV, Quinn’s rifle where said bullets came from, and a billion other pieces of evidence would clearly paint a picture of how yes, maybe someone really was trying to kill her and it wasn’t a “mental defect.”

But anyway, that’s where the story ended, so I was glad.

What frustrated me is despite everything I’ve said, Crouch writes the whole thing really well for the most part. It’s not just readable, it’s colorful, full of interesting and weird characters, vivid imagery, scenes that blend the real and hallucinatory. It’s just saddled with cartoonishly evil people, and a stream of coincidences and plot contrivances.

A curious “great idea/not so great execution” I can’t really recommend, unless you’re okay with everything that was obviously a problem for me. If you are, all the better for you, because the writing, as said, is quite good.

One thumb up, the other thumb waggling at the first one disapprovingly.

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