Mr. Hands – Gary A. Braunbeck

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Reading Mr. Hands reminds me of the title of the Clint Eastwood spaghetti western – The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. This book has all three and it reads pretty much in that order. Lets start with the good. This is my first read of Braunbeck’s material. Haing lived in central Ohio for fifteen years of my life and also hearing good reviews of his work, I was excited to dive into Mr. Hands. It starts off well enough. A strange man sitting at the end of the bar has a story to tell to the bartender, the sherriff, and a reverend. OK. It kind of reminds me of Straub’s Ghost Story meets the Twilight Zone. You’ve got my interest, Braunbeck. Where do we go from here? Well, from there, he unwinds a story about Ronald James Williamson. a young boy who may be a little slow but has the unique gift of being able to predict a child’s future on whether it will be filled with happiness or misery. Based on what he detects, ala shades of The Dead Zone, determines what course of action Ronnie takes. Happiness equals smiling and moving on. But if Ronnie detects a future fulfilled with misery and abuse for the child, he becomes judge, jury and executioner. Nobody expects the slow kid, right?
Braunbeck’s writing style is fast paced and enjoyable. I’m buying into all of it up to this point. Then, at somewere around the 2/3 mark, he shifts gears and does a hard turn. He introduces us to Mr. Hands, brings back a character from the beginning of the book, and gives us a scene almost directly out of the movie Pumpkinhead. My suspension of disbelief was thrown into a headlock and beat up pretty good. I tried to get back on track to a story I was enjoying and wanted to enjoy again. I was hoping that this sudden shift would make sense and tie it all together in an A HA moment. No dice. This was the bad. Now for the ugly.
For the last 1/3 of the book, Braunbeck tells a tale of revenge that becomes more and more unbelievable with every turn of the page. He introduces us to characters and kills them off not pages later, but paragraphs later. Every character introduced is paper thin. There is no development to either like or dispise them before they are offed. Add that to the fact that the story is getting more and more hokey as we race to the finish line. At this point, I’m only turning pages out of obligation to see if there’s a rhyme or reason to this mess, not because I’m enjoying it anymore. No such luck. The character of the six-year old boy is so unbelievable that I’m scoffing at every page. I have a son around his age and there is no way him or any of his peers would say or do 90% of what Braunbeck’s character is doing in this one. That, my friends, is the ugly.
Its been a long time since I’ve been this disappointed in a book and my disappointment isn’t because its a bad story. I’ve read plenty of stories that were worse than this one that I’ve rated higher and it’s because they were consistently weak all the way through. This one seemed like it was going somewhere and then it completely derailed and crashed down a mountain ravine. At one point, I thought Braunbeck suffered a stroke while he was writing this and the last 1/3 was post stroke. Sigh. So disappointed. I will read another Braunbeck in the future. I haven’t sworn him off. I really want to read something of his that is at the level that I think he’s capable of. I’m rooting for Mr. Hands to be an anomoly and not the rule.

2 stars out of 5

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