You’re on a plane. You’re on a train. You’re wheeling through American space, and you’re feeling it: the hum of the void, the up-for-grabs-ness of it all. Out here there’s no protection. Good customer service, if you’re lucky, but no protection. Out here there is only the crackling feral mind: dominance, appetite, predation, pitiless allegiance to the pack. Who are you going to read, in this condition? Henry James? No. You’re going to read Lee Child.
Someone, somewhere, buys one of Child’s Jack Reacher crime thrillers every 13 seconds. This is a celebrated factoid, and I believe it. An atmosphere of pullulating need surrounds these productions. At transportation hubs across the country, they are clutched and consumed by Americans in motion. Child, the pusher, bangs out a book a year. Born James Grant and raised in Birmingham, England, he went to J. R. R. Tolkien’s old school, and has seen Waiting for Godot at least 39 times. He has an industrial caffeine habit, and he smokes like a chimney. Heavy schedule, heavy fuel. Andy Martin’s fascinating Reacher Said Nothing, in which he literally sits in a room and watches Child write a Reacher novel, is also an account of him sitting in a room and watching Child go through coffee and cigarettes: 20-ish cups, a pack a day. And then, as the word count—and the pace—increases, sugar: Snickers bars and bowls of Sugar Smacks.
I read my first Reacher book along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, between New York and Boston, and I remember nothing about it except a sensation of empty velocity (with just a hint of train-clatter). It ran through me, leaving a clean and brilliant hole. Jack Reacher is a former military policeman turned super-drifter who roams America with only a toothbrush and the clothes he’s standing up in. Bus station to bus station, diner to diner. Nothing slows him down except a plot, because Reacher is a man for whom the phrase moral compass was invented: His code determines his direction. Where dwells unrighteousness, where redress is demanded, there goes Reacher. In The Midnight Line, it’s the glint of a West Point class ring in a pawnshop window, on “the sad side of a small town,” that detains him. The ring is sized for a woman. What proud West Pointer, wonders Reacher (who went there himself), would pawn her class ring if she didn’t have to? Is there a woman in distress, under duress, somewhere nearby? He must look into it. Something might need to be straightened out. And so, like children going into the Black Forest, we enter the realm of story, holding Reacher’s huge and dangerous hand.
Reacher sleeps with tough, attractive women, and he bashes up bad guys. Hit men, dealers, bullies, bodyguards, psychopaths, gunrunners, goons. Whomever. An infinite succession of guys. In Make Me,
Reacher stepped in and kicked the left-hand guy full in the groin, before the guy’s gun was even halfway out of its holster, which meant the right-hand guy had time to get his all the way out, but to no avail, because the next event in his life was the arrival of Reacher’s elbow.
Physically, Reacher is immensely skilled and powerful; mentally, he’s a kind of rogue vacancy, a fugue on legs, a field of glittering blank attention in which reality discovers itself, detail by detail. Approaching the house of a bad guy in Persuader, he notes the varying pitch of “a far-off sprinkler turning slowly and hissing against a soaked sidewalk through sixty degrees of its rotation.” In Die Trying, chained up in a barn by kidnappers, Reacher shuts his body down “like a beach house in winter” and turns his mind into “a huge black space for thinking in.” Remember the Grateful Dead song about the headlight on the northbound train, the one that shines its light through the cool Colorado rain? That’s Reacher.
Past Tense, published in November, is the 23rd Reacher novel. As usual, Reacher is arrowing across America, materially and spiritually unencumbered, when he gets ensnared in a genre: It could have been assassination thriller (Personal, Without Fail), homicide procedural (Running Blind), or gangster blowout (Persuader). But this time it’s horror: humans hunting humans, elitists with bows and arrows stalking unarmed proles in a wood. As usual, the plot includes stretches of psychedelic dullness, in which Reacher’s egoless absorption in a process or data set—his strange, beetling focus on something (the local census, in this case)—makes the page blossom with boredom. But we go along with it; we assent, dazedly, to this level of teeming specificity. Every Reacher book I’ve read is about 100 pages too long. Somehow, I don’t care.
Intermittently, Reacher has a feeling-tone like Jack Kerouac’s: road-saddened. (Samuel Beckett’s famous mise-en-scène for Godot—“A country road. A tree. Evening”—is, let’s face it, not un-Reacheresque.) Reacher knows, for example, the desolation of American interiors. On a motel room in Without Fail: “Floral drapes, already closed. A floral bedspread, Scotchgarded until it was practically rigid. No-color bamboo-weave stuff on the walls. A cheap print over the bed.” And he has a novelist’s eye for character. Hitchhiking, as he often does, in Past Tense, he is picked up by a guy in a Subaru wagon. The guy is wearing “pleated chino pants and a crisp khaki shirt,” and he has a wedding ring.
Dressed by his wife, Reacher thought … But under the fine fabrics was a workingman’s body. A thick neck and large red knuckles. The slightly surprised and somewhat reluctant boss of something, Reacher thought. The kind of guy who starts out digging post holes and ends up owning a fencing company.
His sharpest sense is his hearing. Reacher’s ear is bestially acute. In Past Tense something wakes him in the night, a noise below the threshold of consciousness, giving rise to some wonderfully empty Reacher poetry: “He padded naked out of bed and checked the alley through the window. Nothing. No glint of raccoon, no ghostlike coyote, no eager dog.” The unnamed vibration—a cry for help?—has tweaked his “primitive cortex.” Reacher has an ear because Child has an ear. Also from Past Tense: “West was dead ahead. A faint gray acre of grass, and then a wall of trees, low and black beyond it.” Three e-sounds—west, dead, ahead—followed for symmetry by three a-sounds: faint, gray, acre. But the e-sounds are flat, and the a-sounds lengthen out, giving off a dim glow, a grassy phosphorescence, as the eye-beam diffuses in the darkness. That’s assonance, dude, like Wordsworth did it.
A rare moment of human error, from The Midnight Line:
Reacher heard the snap of a catch. Afterward he recalled a split second of fast chaotic thought, like his whole life was flashing before his eyes, except it wasn’t his whole life, merely his mistakes of the last thirty seconds, explained and analyzed and ridiculed and exaggerated to a ludicrous degree.
Reacher thought the guy was unarmed. He thought the guy was beaten. Wrong, Reacher. But look. The error is watched, enjoyed almost—“ridiculed”—by an indestructible seed of observing consciousness: Reacher’s atman, if you like. His headlight in the Colorado rain. Where this light falls, where the beam goes, is determined by bits of personal history, bits of circumstance. Jack Reacher: a bare-bones, operational definition of a self.
American space is bristling against your window, electric with uncertainty. Like Henry Rollins said, post–Black Flag: You have to be part animal, part machine. You need the sensorium of a panther and a brain like a search engine. You need Jack Reacher. Thirteen seconds pass, and another Reacher book flies off the shelf. Lee Child takes another drag on his Camel filter. And another gulp of coffee. And then he types another line. Maybe he thinks about going to see Waiting for Godot one more time. Puff. Slurp. Tap-tap-tap. A country road, a tree. Repeat, repeat. Until we’ve all quit this loop, and are reading and moving no more.
This article appears in the December 2018 print edition with the headline “The Propulsive Appeal of Jack Reacher.”