Throughout Don Hollway's debut novel, readers are reminded that “this is not Hemingway’s Africa.” Dangerous Game is raw, brutal and unflinching in its portrayal of violence in Africa. From the choppy flow of its paragraphs — replete with coarse and vulgar language that characterizes the people — to the unrelenting danger imposed upon the protagonist, readers are besieged by the politics and the prejudices of the region. All of it is conveyed in gruesome detail.
It begins in Mogadishu with Mike McKay, a sergeant in the U.S. military. The operation he’s part of goes bad and Mike ends up killing his friend. Jump forward an unspecified period of time and Mike owns land in Africa. It’s a ranch called Kifaro Shamba where McKay is trying to save the black rhinoceros from poachers. In fact, McKay has earned a reputation in Africa for killing poachers on his land. Locals call him the Finger of God. But, while McKay has all the ammo he needs, he doesn’t have the finances to sustain his ranch. Enter the billionaire investor who offers to help McKay – but, of course, he has ulterior motives.
Harrison Soames, the wealthy investor, has hunted everything and now wants to try hunting people for sport. He arrives in Africa with his own personal militia, heavily stocked with weapons, and uses Mike as a guide to track and hunt poachers – his new game. The stage is set for a showdown between McKay and Soames.
Hollway has superb ability with scenes of intense action and they come fast and furious. Early in the book, McKay and his friend track and kill a leopard that’s attacked a local village child. It’s a taut scene – if a bit gruesome — and sets the pattern for much of the action later on. The best word to describe this action is visceral. While hunting or fighting or being tortured, the reader feels like a character in the story. There are times you want to look away, to get away from the danger, but inexorably you are violently pulled back in – even when you don’t want to go back.
Hollway also displays talent at creating believable and unique characters in just a few words or actions. He crafts distinct individuals and realistic dialogue well chosen to convey each characters personality. Even secondary characters are sincere and real. For example, there’s a young relief worker who makes an appearance near the end of the book. She’s only described in a few paragraphs but by the end of the book you’re desperate for her arrival. You want to see her again. The other characters are just as real. You like them, hate them, pity them. Soames and his people are bloodthirsty, the warlords and police are corrupt and diseased. McKay is struggling with identity. It all feels authentic.
For about two-thirds of the novel all these elements make it very absorbing. A writer should put his protagonist in danger repeatedly; this keeps the tension strong. At some point, it becomes too much. Dangerous Game crossed that point.
Near the end, McKay is wandering through a shredded refugee camp with an automatic rifle, stepping on and over dead bodies, spotting “a couple of AK-toting Skinnies.” He didn’t hesitate in killing them, “he fired from the hip … reloaded on the move, always on the move.” Yeah, Rambo would have done things like that. McKay had been believable and interesting until this point. Now, he becomes another Hollywood style super-soldier whacking bad guys at will.
There are too many ferocious onslaughts. Characters are surviving horrible beatings and explosions (and bee stings) just to wreak further havoc later. It becomes comical, then tiring, exhausting.
What made this all the worse was that the reader gets cheated out of a big payoff. Our hero is supposed to undergo a change or reach a goal; he must show himself to be better in some way than the bad guys in the story. We don’t see that in McKay. He shows a bloodlust that is no better than any of the antagonists in the book. He’s the same guy at the end of the book as he was in the beginning and in the exact same situation. And he loses everything. No payoff for all his survival. McKay had a goal and was never able to reach it. We are cheated out of that achievement.
The novel never seemed to be sure what its theme should be. There was the "save the rhinoceros" ideal; redemption, morality, the futility (or stupidity) of violence were all contenders for theme. There was also the issue of female circumcision. Honestly, the story would have been stronger sans that detailed and painful attribute. The true theme was finally stated, it seems, on one of the final pages: “Human life is, after all, a commodity.” It is spent graphically in Dangerous Game.
Mr. Hollway, though, does have some spectacular storytelling abilities. I look forward to more intense and authentic action adventure novels from him.