One thing we should talk about is the terrible way Jason Elam introduces all his characters, of whom there are dozens and dozens - for a book with an eventual body count in the mid-four figures, he pulls off the complicated feat of introducing countless minor, quirky, wisecracking assholes and somehow keeping all of the relevant ones alive far longer than the plot demands.
Here’s the way we’re introduced to the main homeland security research guy, a reclusive genius who’s inexplicably from Fulton, NY:
The Yoo-Hoo and Diet Mountain Dew Code Red blended together as they were poured into the cup, forming a frothing concoction the color of moderately underdone roast beef. Cherry chocolate nectar of the gods, Scott Ross thought as he threw out the empties.
Fulton, NY, a small city roughly 20 miles away from where I grew up, was mostly notable during my youth for being the site of a giant Nestle factory, which meant that the entire fucking town constantly smelled like stale chocolate. If your car has ever broken down on the Garden State Parkway near all those creepily secretive flavoring plants, you know the type of smell I’m talking about - eerily pervasive, cloying, the kind of thing that makes you want to go home and drink a whole thing of imitation vanilla.
Can’t blame a Fultonite for having a Yoo-Hoo jones, I guess is what I’m saying. Least of all Scott Ross - erratic boy savant, owner of a mind unable even to be controlled by the rigorous curriculum at the University at Albany, but a man who thrived under the discipline of Uncle Sam, eventually serving as Riley Covington, American Hero’s former USAF right-hand man.
Like almost every character in this book with whom we’re supposed to identify who doesn’t get immediately killed in a suicide bombing, Scott has a wildly convoluted and melodramatic backstory:
"My parents were addicts. Coke, horse, meth - you name it, they took it. There was this one Christmas when I was eight - my parents sent me into a house to score some chiva for them. I heard yelling and screaming as I walked up. I tried to turn around, but my parents wouldn’t let me back in the car without the dope. So I went back and knocked. No one answered the door. I walked in, and the smell in the house nearly bowled me over. It wasn’t until years later when I was with AFSOC that I recognized what that smell was. It was death, hanging big-time in that house."
Scott, too, decides to give up the swinging life of Afghan deployment for the homefront:
His need for independence, combined with the extreme difficulty of getting Yoo-Hoo in Afghanistan, cemented his decision to accept the employment offer presented to him by the Department of Homeland Security.
Since Elam presents this comic relief character’s crippling Yoo-Hoo dependence as a real, integral aspect of his personality, it’s unclear whether this is meant to be taken seriously.
We meet Abdel and Aamir, suicide bombers in “North Central United States” who are planning to blow up the Mall of America (can you already tell that there are a lot of bad parallel narratives in this book?), as they complain about the winter:
"Don’t worry, Brother. Soon enough, you will be luxuriating in a perfect world with a perfect climate surrounded by perfect women."
"That truly will be amazing. However, even though I know we’re promised seventy-two of those perfect women, I would be content with just seven - as long as they all looked like Areej, the daughter of Abdullah the butcher."
Lousy North Central United States weather! If you’re wondering why Elam has chosen incredibly vague geographic signifiers to denote where his sleeper cell is currently in hiding, rest assured that this device is in no way meant to be an obvious red herring, and in no way implies that future incredibly vague geographic signifiers (“Saturday, December 20: United States,” etc) will conceal shocking truths about the identity and location of superstar international terrorist Hakeem Qasim, whose dastardly machinations are as we speak machinating their way across the heartland. Nope. Must have been worried about getting sued by the Hibbing Jaycees or something.
(Sidebar: “Abdullah the butcher?” Really? Nothing spells enhanced interrogation like a fork to the forehead, after all, but even so.)
But of all the early main characters of “Monday Night Jihad,” it’s Salvatore Ricci whose story is truly inspirational. The Italian-born All-Pro tight end speaks perfect English despite being in the country for a total of two years, but occasionally lapses into hand-waving “it’s-a me, Salvatore!” patois. And what led Sal Ricci to stroll down Denver’s picturesque boulevards?
Joining the Mustangs had been the final step in a meteoric rise for Salvatore Ricci. Coming up through the Italian Football League - which Ricci had to constantly remind people was not called the “Italian Soccer League” - Ricci had been a big reason why A.C. Milan had taken the 2003-04 Serie A division championship. When Ricci was approached by the Hamburg Donnerkatzen of the International American Football League, he had been apprehensive. He knew how to use his body and his feet; hands were not something he was accustomed to using. But he was a natural athlete, and soon, scouts from PFL teams began showing up at his games. He knew then that it was only a matter of time before he “jumped the pond.”
Yes, like all scudetto-winning calcio stars, Sal Ricci’s real passion lay in minor-league American football, played to literally dozens of fans in second-tier German cities. What young Italian boy hasn’t dreamed of one day playing in the San Siro like his idols, only to quickly give it all up for an unlikely eventual shot at PFL gold with a team called the Thundercats?
But for young Sal Ricci - a skilled linguist capable of mastering English in a matter of months, an athletic marvel good enough to play elite-level football and soccer (although somebody oughta remind him that it isn’t called the “Italian Football League” either), and a man who in no way bears any resemblance to superstar international terrorist Hakeem Qasim, despite the cruel taunts to the contrary of the Bay Area Bandits faithful - coming to America hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Try as he might, he just can’t wrap his head around the trendy “WWJD” movement! In this excerpt, his best friend, Riley Covington, American Hero, tries to set him straight:
"For many people it was just a cool saying, something to make them feel spiritual. For me, it’s really how I try to live my life."
Ricci scooped out another helping of the spinach supreme from the family-style dish. “I guess that makes sense. You see someone who has a problem, you give them what they need, and, bam! you’re one step closer to heaven.”
"Not quite, Sal. I don’t need to get any steps closer to heaven because of my belief in Jesus Christ. Doing all the good things only-"
Ricci’s cell phone interrupted the conversation. He looked at the caller ID, flushed, and then hurriedly said, “Sorry, I have to take this.”
Looks like one Colorado Mustang is a fan of “Pretending to Text in Awkward Situations!”