Reading: The Brotherhood of the Wheel

The Brotherhood of the Wheel cover, a dark background with bright yellow text

The Brotherhood of the Wheel cover doesn’t really┬ádo the┬áconcept justice. Maybe that should have been a sign

A few months ago, I attended Shore Leave, which is a super fun, fan-run sci-fi convention close to Baltimore, MD. (And I’ll write up my experiences there – good and bad – real soon.) While I was there, an editor from Tor mentioned a recently launched series by R.S. Belcher – the first book was called “The Brotherhood of the Wheel” and it was about modern-day Knights Templar fighting evil on the highways of America. The best part? The main characters are long-haul truckers, taxi drivers, bikers, state troopers – people who spend all their time on the road.

I can’t even tell you how quickly I jumped on Amazon to buy The Brotherhood of the Wheel for my Kindle, y’all.

(As a note, if I’m talking about a book here, I’ve most likely bought it myself. I don’t really take many people up on review copies these days. I’ll always disclose where something came from if I’m telling you about it.)

Unfortunately – and I’d rather get this out in the air before we all spend too much time on this – the reality of the book didn’t live up to my excitement over the concept. I really want to be raving about The Brotherhood of the Wheel because it has so many things that I love – but there is too much going on that is a barrier to my actual enjoyment.

First, the prose – if you’ve ever read Belcher’s work before, you know he has a pretty distinctive style. I really thought that I just needed to get back into the rhythm of his particular prose and then I’d be having the time of my life. His language tends towards the purple; his constructions toward the crunchy noir. There are sentences of some delicacy, like this one:

Jimmie knew when you were on a long run those voices gave you comfort in the knowledge you were not alone in the wasteland of the Road, not alone driving throughout the heartland of America in the darkest of hours, the only soul awake in the lands of the dreaming dead.

But there are also moments like this:

The drunk on the floor made a sound like a golf ball getting sucked in a pool intake filter and curled and shuddered as he puked on himself.

I mean, it’s a visceral description but it’s a style that takes a little getting used to.

Style is one thing; then I kept stubbing my toe on characters who were little other than stereotypes. It started from the very beginning, when we meet Jimmie Aussapile, with his paunch and his chaw and his male pattern baldness hidden with a Squidbillies cap.

That’s another thing – the branding feels a little heavy handed throughout. Belcher even has a character talk about Myspace and Instagram (as though they were social media hotness at the same time, which also threw me out of the story while I looked up dates and checked with social media loving friends to see if they even overlapped as active sites). There’s just a lot of details about truck brands and engine specs and guns that might leave some readers skimming through.

But the stereotypes. Jimmie is the trucker. Hector is the Scottish biker with the red anime hair and burning green eyes. By the time we meet Lovina, the dark-skinned black woman with the aristocratic nose, I was worried she was going to be another caricature.

And then I hit the dialect:

“Well, you ass me,” the old lady said, “dat boy had sumthin wrong wi’ him. He always talkin’ ’bout crazy shit.”

Dialect written out like that, particularly when a writer is using it to convey class and/or race, really bothers me. It feels like we’re supposed to be judging the character and I’m not okay with that.

I kept putting this book down and then picking it back up, convinced it couldn’t be as hard to get through as I was finding it. I WANT bikers and truckers who are saving the world – I had no idea how much I wanted that! But the more I pushed into this book, the more reading it felt like work, and like I was spending most of my time wincing.

There’s a lot of really interesting work going on in The Brotherhood of the Wheel. If your to-read pile is shorter than mine or you just have more patience than I do, it’s possible you’ll be able to squint past the uncomfortable reliance on stereotypes. I’m disappointed – and I think that feeling is probably going to stick around for a while. I’ve had to put this down without finishing it, which I almost never do with a book.

Are you reading something great? Let me know what it is!