Review: Mr. Neutron by Joe Ponepinto

'Attentions became distracted, whether in admiration or lust or resentment, and no doubt she used each reaction to her advantage. No feminism for this Breeze, because she didn't have to. No demands for equality. Doors were opened.'

- 18% in Mr. Neutron (Kindle)

by Joe Ponepinto

Published by 7.13 Books, March 2018.

Buy the book here

In Grand River, an American city polluted in more ways than one, Gray Davenport is an aide to the hopeless mayoral candidate Bob Boren. He hasn’t been paid in weeks and Bob has no chance of winning against the greasy Elvis Vega - or the eight-foot tall newcomer Reason Wilder who seems to be hypnotising the people with his repetitive slogans. Very soon Reason and his assistant the Reverend Inchoate Hand turn Gray’s life into a series of disasters: his wife L’Aura becomes their campaign manager and throws him out, Gray is hired by two mysterious suits to investigate Reason, his attempts to get Bob’s campaign on track are constantly shut down and he hasn’t had sex in a very long time. Mr. Neutron is intended as a satirical political romp with a Frankenstein-myth twist. I was sent a Kindle copy in exchange for an honest review.

We are introduced to our protagonist Gray staring at Reason Wilder, a giant “who clomped around the stage, towering over the heads of his supporters, shaking his hair like a dog in the rain” (2%). Gray’s dual awe and suspicion of Reason’s origins are obvious from the get-go, suspecting him to be “a reanimated collection of body parts” (2%). Here start’s Gray’s downhill spiral in life, his sex-starved mind unravels as he obsesses over Reason’s origins beyond the point of political rivalry and into a life or death pursuit for truth. On almost the first page we are given a blaringly clear indication of where the plot of Mr. Neutron goes, a move that resembles a magician showing the audience how he pulled the rabbit out of the hat before doing the trick itself. Reason is a reanimated collection of body parts, an undeniably interesting modern twist on Frankenstein, and I felt the cat was let out of the bag too early. Despite the writer’s attempt to build intrigue, the reader gets exactly what they expect and the true intrigue lies in whether Gray, a man of preteen-level horniness, can get into bed with Breeze Wellington, a woman of barely disguised pornographic qualities.

The start of the novel is strong and promising, but I felt overall the plot was unevenly split between a satire of political shortcomings and a half-adventure into science-fiction. The stereotype German doctor Reverend Hand doing illegal science experiments was nothing original, though I enjoyed Reason as a character and despite disliking the ending, I felt it was an interesting turn-of-events. Ponepinto tries to energize the plot with small twists and new characters, though after a while these felt more like unnecessary fillers than stimulating avenues. I felt if there had been less plot-driven moments and more character-focused scenes, this book might have been more balanced. There were some chuckle-worthy lines, but overall I didn’t find this a funny book. The language itself didn’t make for an easy read, but I would expect this of political satire and the tone was very in-keeping with Gray’s personality.

I do not pretend to be a reader of political novels generally and I do not know the ins-and-outs of the American political environment that Ponepinto is satirizing. The irony of a campaign for Reason and Reason being dead wasn’t lost on me. Trumps’ election campaign and his term thereafter has been a storm of sensationalism, entertainment and media, successful in many ways despite his unpopularity with many demographics. Ponepinto represents Trump’s monstrosity and the ridiculousness of his campaigns by placing a genuine monster in this novel. Reason is represented as physically monstrous, while Reverend Hand embodies the manipulative cunning side of politics alongside Gray’s brand of professional idealism. Without spoiling the ending, two of these characteristics are welded together and the end result is a man who could likely go on to be President. In the end, a man steps forth who turns his back on his people in the aim for greater glory.

I am always intrigued how writers use environment in their work, how strongly it echoes through the characters themselves. Mr. Neutron takes place in Grand River, a place “laden with chemicals as any unfiltered Camel” (8%), a place unimportant and populated with petty minds and dead ends. Like Gray, the city no longer cares for itself. Ponepinto describes his American city as a place “where the debris of a dozen cities funnelled and clogged its way to the Pacific” (14%) and in many ways this line represents Gray Davenport. He is a filter for the goals of others. Throughout the story he is used by others, the pawn of a much larger game and his successes are very few. While I was aware the book was intended as satire, I found the wealth of Gray’s internal monologues disrupted the flow of the story considerably. There is little action and plenty of stilted reflection. We are given many pages of Gray’s alternating self-loathing, narcissism and perverted thoughts. When he is not busy putting himself down, he is thinking of sex in a way that can make the female reader uncomfortable. This altogether made for difficult and somewhat depressing reading.

There are three central female characters in Mr.Neutron: Patsy Flatley, L’Aura Davenport and Breeze Wellington. None of these leading ladies are particularly flattering and while I am not so strong a feminist to say there must be a fair female representative, I was concerned by these misogynist stereotypes and Gray’s consistent objectification of women. Though we are of course in Gray’s limited perspective, all these women are manipulative, cunning and with their own agenda. Patsy Flatley is Bob Boren’s second-in-command, a large lady who is dim-witted, mean and spends the whole time on a bouncing red ball that supposedly helps her back. She is portrayed as the ridiculous fat woman – even her name is a nod to ‘flatulent’ – who is vicious in her ignorance. Meanwhile we have L’Aura, Gray’s ice queen ex-wife and questionable artist, who’s biggest crime appears to be “the once-a-season sympathy fuck she permitted, or as she put it, endured” (13%). Gray is quickly suspicious when she begins working for Reason Wilder and decides she is having sexual escapades with the old men, which isn’t far from the truth.

Last but not least we have Breeze Wellington, whose bosom and sexual fire instantly attracts Gray’s perverted mind. Throughout the novel, Gray constantly fantasizes about her but rarely has the courage to do anything about it. I disliked Breeze as a character more and more over the story, particularly as she was revealed to have a porno-star past – which wasn’t a surprise at all – and she was manipulating Gray all along. At the end, it is made very clear she uses her body to get what she wants, caring only about money and power. Gray goes so far as asking why she didn’t give him one night and during her last appearance, forcibly kisses her and breaks her arm in the attempt. I felt in a novel written for 2018, the author would have been more aware of using female characters in this way and it certainly rankled to see such out-dated portrayals of women. The one character I liked, and the only positive part in the novel, was Randy. He is the lonely hotel owner who lets Gray stay with him when he is at his lowest. Randy is cheerful, full of innuendo and genuinely cares about others, sticking with Gray through thick and thin. He is the one true hero in the book, as he saves and helps Gray many times. Even then Gray turns his mind to Randy’s sexuality and wonders whether, if Breeze failed him, whether a life with Randy might not be so bad. Breeze and Randy act as motivators for Gray, the former drives him onward and the latter supports him, so in this respect they are cleverly constructed to service the plot.

This novel was overall a hard-read and while I dislike giving a book a bad review, I can’t say I enjoyed this book. It was a slog to get through with Gray’s consistent self-loathing, his seedy – and also consistent – thoughts towards women and I felt while Ponepinto was attempting an interesting genre-bend, I’m not confident in the result. Randy and Reason were for me the only intriguing characters and I would have preferred seeing a story about those two, rather than Gray and Breeze, who dominated most of the novel.