William Brewer
William Brewer

A Review of William Brewer’s “The Red Arrow”

Different Things for Different Readers

“The Red Arrow” Book Cover
“The Red Arrow” Book Cover

This is probably becoming something of a cliché with my book reviewing, but there are certain books that I review and talk about where I come out and say that I’d rather not tell you anything about the book being reviewed in particular — leaving you to go off and discover them on your own with little or no idea as to what they’re all about. It’s not that I’m lazy and can’t envision writing 1,000 words about a certain book (though I’ve had my share of wanting to not write 1,000 words about some books, unsure of how much I have to say about a particular title that isn’t borderline repetitive). Rather, it’s that the book’s plot is usually so original and knotty that you’re better off experiencing it for yourself rather than having a guide give you the CliffsNotes version of it. That’s part of the enjoyment around the strange and beguiling The Red Arrow. This is just one of those books that are better the less you know walking into it. And part of the reason is that it’s so nebulous — I could imagine sitting down with 15 other people for a discussion about this novel and having 15 different explanations of what it’s about come back to me. It’s a novel about drugs, writing, writer’s block, toxic spills, mental illness, and other things — and I’m not sure how much of it is real (particularly when it “quotes” from other sources) and how much of a product of the author’s imagination this all is. As noted, this is a very original book.

However, if you do need something of a guide to give you an indication if this is the book for you, what you might want to know is that this is ultimately a book about writing. It concerns a male ghostwriter, who is unnamed, who is writing a book about a famous physicist who is also unnamed. The physicist is fully cooperating with the publication of the book until, one day, he just vanishes. This is a major problem for our ghostwriter because he’s writing this book to pay off the advances that he spent on a novel that he dithered on for two years before deciding that he just couldn’t write. And this is a particular problem because it could financially hurt not only him but his wife under the laws of the state in which they live — should the publisher of the book that didn’t get written decide to legally come after them. So, part of the book is about the backstory leading up to the moment that the physicist is found. That’s one part of the book. Another part is that this is a book about depression, and our ghostwriter’s attempts to manage suicidal ideation without medication (which didn’t wind up working for him anyway) or through traditional therapy (since one therapist basically indicated that he couldn’t be cured). Can a new treatment that involves illicit drugs (magic mushrooms as we would call it in the small Ontario hometown where I’m from) be the thing that brings our protagonist relief?

As you can tell, The Red Arrow is a very heavy book — and I’m not talking about its physical weight. While it can be a joy to read because it goes into some pretty novel places, it can also detract you from reading it as some of the descriptions about depression are pretty on the nose for anyone who has ever suffered from a depressive episode or two. Thus, The Red Arrow might not be for everyone. However, those who like fiction that takes risks are probably going to go gaga over this title. Especially as it plays with the notion of what is real and what is art — which is another tangent this book goes off on, particularly in its final pages. There’s a lot that can be unspooled from this work — so if you’re up to the challenge, The Red Arrow is going to tick for you. One thing that really works in this novel’s favour is the fact that, even though the main characters are all a little flawed, they are immensely likable for being so human. I particularly liked how the narrator’s girlfriend/wife Annie is handled. She’s tough, yet vulnerable. I enjoyed seeing her whenever she stepped onto the page, so it’s a little disappointing that we never find out what mysterious ailment she’s suffering from in the novel’s latter portion. (I hope I haven’t given something away but, if so, it’s a small piece. And I suppose that, as in life, some things never get fully resolved or explained in a book.)

Conclusively, I’m not sure what to say about The Red Arrow. I enjoyed it, even if I found the ending to be a bit confusing. It’s the sort of thing that won’t be a popular read — right now, on Goodreads, some two months after the book’s publication, only roughly 30 readers or so have bothered to write a review. Will this book become a cult classic? It might, but not without it falling out of print first. Again, it’s going to take a peculiar reader to really find something to enjoy with this book — someone who has read a lot and feels that a lot of what’s out there these days are just rehashes of some old thing. However, if that ideal reader sounds like you, you might find The Red Arrow to be, at the very least, an interesting read. There’s a lot to take in, meaning that this novel might have the scrutiny to stand up to multiple readings — if not a little bit of research to find out what works that are quoted in this book are real and which ones are invented. The Red Arrow, in the end, is a curious read for curious minds. There might not be something here for everyone, but there might be everything for a particular someone — the right person who has the head space to get around whatever this book is trying to say or be in the end.

William Brewer’s The Red Arrow was published by Knopf Publishing Group on May 17, 2022.

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Get in touch: zacharyhoule@rogers.com

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Zachary Houle

Zachary Houle

Book critic by night, technical writer by day. Follow me on Twitter @zachary_houle.