Last night, I recovered my Librarian superpowers and actually stayed up far too late to finish a book. I was that engrossed in Tunnel Vision by Aric Davis. This is hardly surprising given that Tunnel Vision is the sequel to Davis’s fantastic 2011 book Nickel Plated. When I read that, I was well and truly blown away by something delightfully new and different. Davis has a talent for combining relate-able, heroic teenage characters with harrowing situations, humor and intelligence.
In 2011, Davis introduced us to Nickel, a tough, smart, survivor of the system who manages to fly under the radar, privately investigate scumbags, and–just to make ends meet–sell some of the sweetest pot Grand Rapids, Michigan has ever smoked. He has set up a life for himself that insulates him while simultaneously bringing him into dangerous proximity with the very criminals who would victimize him and he’s done it all by the ripe age of 12. At times, Nickel Plated reads like a how-to manual for avoiding oversight and adult interference. Davis has clearly given great thought to weaving Nickel’s world so that even this wholly unbelievable premise seems possible. As a high school teacher-librarian, I can see how a kid could slip through the cracks as Nickel has. In his first book, our hero successfully rescued a little girl from her kidnappers and lived to fight another day.
In Tunnel Vision, Nickel hits the ground running…and bleeding. He has escaped after perpetrating a frightening level of Old Testament justice upon the horrific juvenile delinquent camp he’d been sent to after his best dealer turned on him. Nickel is four years older and more battle-hardened than ever. He is also more wounded and vulnerable than we’ve ever seen him and immediately Davis ropes us in to his story again. Tunnel Vision is actually three stories woven into one very compelling knot. First, we have Nickel who is faced with a dilemma: survive and compromise his ethics or maintain his code of morality and potentially come to even greater harm than ever before. Second, we have Mandy’s story, told through her diary entries. Mandy died 15 years ago, strung out on heroin, beaten beyond recognition, and stabbed, presumably by her junkie boyfriend, Duke. Finally, we have Betty and June’s story. They discover that Mandy was June’s aunt and they decide to investigate her murder. Naturally, their paths cross with Nickel’s.
Tunnel Vision is gritty. It literally pulls no punches. Davis doesn’t flinch away from extreme situations, language, or characters. There is murder, prostitution, drugs, violence, identity fraud, and child abuse. The beauty of Nickel’s world is that the horrible people get their comeuppance. Oh, man, do they get their comeuppance! This is a world full of consequences, both good and bad. In one scene in this book, Nickel defends Betty against her boyfriend who has attacked her and, because he has trained under a particularly brutal streetfighter named Rhino, Nickel wins the fight with extreme prejudice. The description of Nickel felling a hearty 16 year-old with a full-force kick to the crotch and then finishing him off with a wind-up kick to the face almost turned my stomach even as I punched the air in my empty apartment to cheer him on. And perhaps this is why Nickel is such a compelling character. He is socially maladjusted as a result of the abuse he has suffered in his short life but he has a code and he sticks to it. He can return violence for violence but he does so judiciously. After making a drug deal with a particularly unsavory asshole, Nickel pedals his bike over to the dealer’s last crash pad and rescues a neglected child he had spotted on his last visit to the house. His courage and humanity keep him from becoming the very people he fights. And, yes, the drug dealer gets his just desserts in the end too. Davis looks out for his reader in this and doesn’t leave aggravating loose ends that scream “SEQUEL!” Even though we may yearn to read more Nickel stories.
In fact, Davis avoids virtually all of the conceits so common to both procedural crime dramas and YA lit today. His characters are smart and well-rounded and diverse without being overbearingly and annoyingly “original.” They seem real and they think through their own situations. There aren’t obvious red herrings and while, yes, there exists a thread of romance between Nickel and Betty, it is appropriately awkward and beautiful and realistically messy. And neither character is there solely to prop the other one up. In fact, each of the main characters in Tunnel Vision could sustain his or her own story and this literary autonomy only strengthens their combined story. When Nickel, Betty, and June finally team up and start working on Mandy’s murder as a group, it feels as though three master instrumentalists have finally resolved their disparate themes into one rousing movement that is accelerating toward a truly thrilling conclusion.
As a result of this realism, my only gripe about this story is that even so insightful a writer as Davis has lacunae where some of his characters are concerned. Specifically, and unsurprisingly, I take issue with his high school librarian character. Betty and June wind up in their school’s library often throughout the course of their research into Mandy’s murder and, inexplicably, the librarian is a cardboard shusher of a character who takes issue with their enthusiastic volume not once, not twice, but three times! As a librarian, I have never shushed a student. I have been shushed by a student on more than one occasion. The potent disdain Davis directs toward the librarian on multiple occasions is most keenly felt in the following passage: “…that remark sent both of them into librarian shush-worthy titters, an affliction they managed to rein in before any actual punishment could be levied on them for daring to be amused in the temple of stacked books” (p.128). It’s an insultingly inaccurate portrayal of a modern librarian or library and, I hope, it is simply a holdover from an unfortunate stereotype Davis himself ran into as a teenager. Frankly, though, I almost stopped reading right there out of disgust. Librarians are not all the same, just as teenagers are not all the same. Davis does a splendid job of recognizing the latter in his books while completely disregarding the former. Fortunately, I was able to curb my frustration long enough to get to the very next page where I was once again fully committed to the story.
Ultimately, this book is not for everyone, but it will appeal to far more people than one might suspect, given its content. Nickel’s world appeals to many reluctant readers, true, but it also appeals to teachers and parents. I passed along a copy of Nickel Plated to my own parents who firmly abhor violence and crudity and they both devoured it. There is something special here. It’s a little rough, a little unpolished, and little off-balance at times. But the end result, as is so often the case with true new art, is beautiful to behold and deeply satisfying to absorb. I highly recommend Tunnel Vision. Just make sure you read Nickel Plated first. And plan on NOT sleeping until you hit the final page!