Half Mast, the first novel from FilmCritic.com founder Christopher Null, is a stunning accomplishment, achieving several difficult tasks simultaneously: gripping caper yarn, perceptive coming of age story, keen observation and commentary on drastic Darwinian social stratification in school (with echoes of Columbine, et al), and a devastating look at the inexorable manifestation of the internal into the external which some call fate.
The main character and narrator is Alex, whom we meet through his journal written at the urging of his therapist. Alex is in his late-twenties, deeply troubled, virtually autistic in his lack of human affect, and desperately seeking some kind of relief from his internal prison.
Through his journal entries we learn the source of his pain and self-repression: murder in the coldest, most protracted of bloods.
Alex is a glib, gifted and geeky 8th grader who leaves the success of middle school behind for the jungle of one of the nation’s largest high schools, where the size of the student body – 5,000 strong – creates a dangerous anonymity that fosters fierce stratification without the leavening agent of adult engagement with that social structure: it’s just too big for the adults to know what the hell is going on.
My junior high in SoCal had about 3,000 kids in three grades, massive, socially stratified, scary, somewhat dangerous. Null beautifully captures the Lord of the Flies cruelty of insecure adolescents grasping for their place on the ladder, mashing the faces of those below them under heel. If anything, junior high may be more cruel than high school but at least the capacity for damage is less with smaller physical size and relatively little personal mobility.
My personal story is the inverse of Alex’s: I moved from a huge, diverse, semi-urban junior high near the LA Harbor, to a small (800 for four grades), remarkably homogeneous upper-middle class high school in suburban Cleveland. Other than the weather, it was like waking up in heaven.
In a huge school there is so much talent to draw from due to sheer numbers, that only the very best in any given activity or interest can take part in them – you have severe specialization. In a small school you can take part in most anything that interests you: sports, arts, activities, and there is more social fluidity as well. I was a member of various groups: jocks, partiers, music, theater, intellectuals, and able to move pretty freely between them, which had not been the case in the huge junior high.
But back to Alex: he opens his mouth at the wrong time soon after entering high school and becomes the object of the school’s most appalling bully, who also happens to be the greatest athlete in the history of the school, and as such is beyond reproach by either student or adult. Alex’s life becomes hell as insult piles upon injury until finally someting snaps within him and he carefully, methodically, expertly plots murder against the brute.
Null picks up the pace as Alex gets caught up in the logistics of plotting, choosing his method, then executing his plan with aplomb.
– SPOILER, SPOILER –
Alex chooses slow, cumulative poisoning which stretches the tension to the breaking point – all the while the reader despises the cruel, arrogant, sadistic oppressor Steve, and I, for one, wanted the bastard dead, NOW.
But then Alex makes a tragic mistake: he reaches a point where he has done great physical, psychic, and emotional damage to his tormentor, dragging him down from his evil cloud of superiority, and with the tormentor now the tormented, Alex seems to have achieved justice and to have regained his self-respect. But he cannot stop, is addicted to the power, to the process, and against his – and our – better judgment, he kills Steve off unleashing every manner of fury and sealing his own fate as well.
I will say no more having said too much. This is a tremendous first effort, of, I am certain, many for Christopher Null. Heartiest congratulations.