The Samaritan, by Fred Venturini, is a new publication from Blank Slate Press, a young publisher from the American Midwest. The book tells the story of Dale Sampson and his best friend, Mack. Dale is an extremely ordinary boy from a small Illinois town. He's smart but sad, badly-socialized and a little pathetic. When Mack, the cool baseball-playing hotshot, takes Dale under his wing, it changes his life. He's still a smart, badly-socialized, pathetic loser, but he's no longer sad - Dale has a friend, and that changes his outlook on everything.
This Disney delight comes to an abrupt end in high school.
While Mack is gleefully leaping on every girl in school, Dale's attention is focused on just one: Regina. It isn't love, it is that gut-wrenching, harmless-yet-terrifying obsession of which only adolescents are truly capable of achieving. Mr. Venturini shows the reader many horrors during the course of The Samaritan, but none of them might be as painful as Dale's unreciprocated crush on Regina.
Dale does get some attention in return - mostly from Regina's boyfriend, Clint. The thuggish bully puts Dale in the hospital. While there, Dale discovers something new - he heals. And by that, I mean heals.
Dale's amazing recuperative power is the science-fictional twist of The Samaritan. It seems that, no matter what you do to him, he comes back. Cut off toes - they regrow. Remove kidneys - they come back. Eyes, legs, skin, lungs... it doesn't matter. Dale's a human salamander with an infinite capacity to absorb punishment.
Of course, what good is being superhuman if your only power is to take a beating? Dale's high school experience concludes with a series of horrific tragedies that prove that, even if his body can recover, his mind cannot. His adult life is little better. Dale becomes a shut-in - numbly ferrying himself back and forth between the comfort of his television and the anonymity of his local Wal-Mart. Despite an increasingly-desperate series of post-it notes-to-self and his annual meetings with Mack, Dale's in no shape to engage with the outside world.
A chance encounter (at the Wal-Mart, no less) with another lost soul from his high school galvanizes Dale. After a series of painful pratfalls, he digs deep within himself (apologies for the pun) and finds a use for his superhuman regenerative ability. Mack's charismatic ruthlessness and Dale's willing martyrdom combine to create "The Samaritan", the hottest new property on television. And from there, things get even stranger.
For a quick genre comparison, The Samaritan is exactly what Mark Millar tries to be. At its simplest level, Dale's story is the narrative of the post-modern superhero. What does the ubermensch do upon recognition of his superiority? Don a cape and fight crime? Or, more realistically, stew in his own juices for a few years and then sell out to a TV production company?
The Samaritan delights in pointing out the utter insignificance of the individual - Dale is no better off for his powers, and certainly no more capable of enacting change in his surroundings. His quest to help others is fruitless when he acts alone. When he entrusts himself to the "system" of the television industry, he's able to make a difference, but only in an undirected, uncontrolled way. Even with his power, Dale is never able to achieve the few acts of "goodness" that he wants to achieve. His climactic achievement - when he does, actually, briefly, maybe do what he wants, it isn't because of his power - it is despite of it. (How's that for spoiler-free vagueness?)
When Mr. Millar's Kick-Ass, 1985 and Ultimates all show the impact of the super-real hitting the real, they invariably glorify the triumph of the former. Even if you lose at first, you will achieve superheroism. If the super-villains arrive they will take over the world. When the superheros come they will save they day. The Samaritan is the reverse - Dale's super-real existance is dropped into the maw of mundanity and immediately consumed. If reality TV has been the assassin of celebrity, The Samaritan shows that it is equally lethal to superheroism. The lowest common denominator is an unstoppable force.
A more worthy comparison comes from outside of genre fiction - Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. There are a few superficial parallels in terms of structure and characters. Both books are first person narratives, both feature extremely introverted shut-ins and both have disruptive, morally-ambiguous friends named "Mack" or "McMurphy". But whereas Mr. Kesey's book uses an insane asylum as a representation of contemporary society, Mr. Venturini chooses not to hide behind metaphor and his book ventures out into the world. The surreal, tragi-comic landscapes of both high school and Hollywood take a beating as his narrator moves from one to the other. The entirety of The Samaritan also has a greater, symbolic meaning, but that doesn't prevent the scenes therein from also having their own distinct value as satire.
Mr. Venturini's splatterpunk style also deserves a mention. Despite the Grand Guignol self-abuse that takes place chapter after chapter, Mr. Venturini never glorifies violence and never lets it rest easy on the reader's mind. What Dale can do - and does - is genuinely horrifying. Those moments where he becomes blase about his self-inflicted injuries are possibly the worst of all. There are also moments of Swingers-like social horror - scenes of embarrassment and destructive naivete that are almost as bad as having one's kidney scooped out repeatedly. At no level is this a pretty book or an easy one.
The brutal style is such that I won't recommend The Samaritan for everyone, but Mr. Venturini is never thoughtless with his efforts nor does he ever take violence lightly (another positive contrast to Mr. Millar). The Samaritan's unblinking approach to horror - physical, mental or emotional - is carefully considered and, ultimately, an essential part of its message.
This is an overwhelming, uncomfortable and excellent book. Dale Sampson may be the closest thing our world ever gets to either a saint or a hero - what does that say about us?
[Despite its small press origins, I believe The Samaritan is available the UK, and, if not, you always ask your local bookshop to order it. You can also get both e-book and book-book through all the usual sources, including directly from the publisher.]
[Want more? We're interviewing Mr. Venturini on 28 March and 30 March.]