Incredible Exploding Man

“Alex’s life appeared to have entered a period of rapidly escalating surrealism.”

About a fifth of the way through this wildly entertaining novel, Alex, the protagonist, realizes with some level of sardonicism that his existence may never return to what he once considered “normal”. Indeed, normativity builds itself out from our experience, cannot in fact do otherwise. Relativity in all its forms is not, it turns out, for the faint of heart.

Award-winning English author Dave Hutchinson has crafted an entrancing universe to inhabit. In addition to his fiction, Hutchinson has also worked as a journalist, and he has his main character do the same — an erstwhile Boston Globe employee — though with far less success, at least at first. Following a series of inexplicable interactions with an expectedly bizarre billionaire, Alex finds himself transported to a small town in Iowa called Sioux Crossing. Here, he discovers a world of rogue physics, mysterious circumstances, and a memorable cast of characters.

Equal parts science fiction and whodunit, The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man by Dave Hutchinson ranges from the prosaic to the absurd, often in the same sentence, and with great dexterity. The figure of Stan Clayton, enigmatic rich man par excellence, looms over the story. The reader is drawn along wondering what exactly Clayton is up to, what he may have up his affluent, bespoke sleeve. At the same time, the singular town of Sioux Crossing conjures its own baffling perplexity. As soon as one mystery reveals itself, another pops up to take focus.

Somehow, despite their number, the plot points and range of characters never seem unwieldy or cumbersome. A dull moment’s not to be had, even if it seems that way at first blush. Mr. Hutchinson has something in mind that will take the reader, if not by complete surprise, then at least down a modestly familiar path within the halo of a new lamp and a novel approach.

Similar in many ways to certain comic book characters and stories, Alex does not consider himself either particularly talented or well-suited to the job for which Clayton has chosen him. Also similar to his comic book counterparts, our hero’s position gets thrust upon him unawares. Though not exactly an innocent bystander either, Alex does sense something imminent, something ominous, a surreal world that is about to change markedly — again — and he will almost certainly find himself among the collateral damage. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say the final quarter of the book holds some very exciting moments.

It is easy to be swept up in the world and the events of this book. Mr. Hutchinson draws on some well-known tropes (with an attendant sense of credit where due), yet he takes them in a wholly new direction (at least to this reader). The story unfolds swiftly, then calms a bit, before finally picking up again. If one finds a complaint in this department, it may be the ending, which felt to me a tad unfinished. One imagines what happens next — given a strong hint what that might be — but a sense of finality is not one of this book’s strongest points.

Another small critical point: Mr. Hutchinson uses the same three or four responsive descriptors throughout the book. Practically every single character “raised an eyebrow”, “shrugged,” “nodded”, or “grunted” during conversation. That was about all they seemed to do other than listen and speak (though the author has a superb ear for dialogue itself). An ounce of variety would have solved this quite easily.

That said, these are two remarkably minor points in the grand scheme of this novel, which remains engaging, unsettling, and incredibly fun from start to finish. For fans of superhero reimaginings, look no further than The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man from Dave Hutchinson. You’re almost certain to be glad you did.

Neal Tucker