Jumped on this after seeing it in the new paperbacks section of the library. Having recently read, and greatly enjoyed, The Forever War, I was happy to see something much more recent from Joe Haldeman. That being said, the description made it seem more like a thriller than a science-fiction novel, so I didn’t go into it expecting too much. This proved fortuitous, because there isn’t much here. Thrillers are neither my area of interest nor expertise, so I can’t be certain, but I don’t think this is a particularly good one. As a “near future science fiction story of the dangers of living in a surveillance state,” as the blurb says, Work Done for Hire is just perplexingly dull.
There are a few rays of sunshine, so let’s start there.
The main character, Jack Daley, is actually pretty interesting. He sort of fell into sniping after being drafted in a near-future rerun of something that sounds suspiciously like the Iraq/Afghanistan wars. He got out with a medical discharge, became a hack writer, and found a girlfriend.
Did I mention the girlfriend, Kit, is a mathematician? Mmhmm. The duo protagonist vibe here is very similar to the one from The Forever War. And while sometimes it seems like all Haldeman had to say about their relationship involved their sex life, I did appreciate at least that both Jack and Kit were the type of people who were fairly open about such things. Haldeman depicts their relationship as one where they are both comfortable in their own skins and comfortable with each other—they are probably in love, but it isn’t the melodramatic, head-over-heels, passionate romances that are almost required in fiction. Theirs is a relationship grounded in mutual respect: Jack views Kit every bit as capable as him, though each recognizes that the other has certain domains in which they excel. I think this is a very positive and healthy portrayal of a long-term romantic relationship.
I also like that the two are, for the most part, interesting fugitives. They go on the run quickly, pulling up sticks and changing cities and identities without too much complaining. While Jack’s reticence to involve the police or other law enforcement might feel a little contrived, I admit it doesn’t feel too contrived. I suspect that we are all generally starting to become rather cynical about the state of law enforcement these days—and Haldeman is probably trying to say something about that here.
Unfortunately, the entire premise of their fugitive lifestyle is hampered by the story-within-a-story that Haldeman includes. This is Work Done for Hire’s unique point: Jack is also writing a novelization of a screenplay that will then serve as the basis for a horror movie about a serial killer. Haldeman intersperses chapters of his story with chapters of Jack’s story. Even after going on the run, Jack continues to write chapters and send them to his editor. Uh … you know, if I were running for my life, that probably wouldn’t be near the top of my priorities. But Jack has to keep doing it, so Haldeman can keep including those chapters, and in so doing, stretch that suspension of disbelief ever so slightly.
Similarly, the third act, in which Jack goes Liam Neeson on the bad guys, feels like it was bolted on to the rest of the book after Haldeman couldn’t find a better ending. (I’m not saying that’s the case; it might be the original ending—but it’s not a good ending.) The story very quickly degenerates into formulaic tropes in which Jack tries to turn the tables on the bad guys. Surprise, surprise—they turn out not to be as competent as they first appeared. The suspense that Haldeman is successful in building for the first half of the novel escapes with all the impressiveness of air escaping a balloon. And from there on, it’s just your textbook thriller.
So, I mean, if that’s your thing, then go for it. Haldeman demonstrates he’s a good writer. I like how he writes the story-within-a-story chapters in a different style to Jack’s more simplistic, formulaic approach to writing. I was having fun for the first part of the book, and I didn’t hate the last part—it just became rather boring. The two main characters are all right, even if no one else ever receives much development.
In short, Work Done for Hire is in the unfortunate position of being among the “meh” novels I’ve read this year. Little distinguishes it from the background—and perhaps if I hadn’t already read so many great books this year I might have been able to say nicer things about this one. As it is, all I can say is that it’s not bad.