It took 20 years for Scott Sparling to write Wire to Wire, but you wouldn't guess it. The Portland-area writer's first novel moves along at a gallop, as a gallery of misfits, fuckups, and outright crooks circle around a shady criminal enterprise in the northern tip of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. But all the drugs and sex and violence really aren't the point; Wire to Wire's lurid backdrop hints at a deeper melancholy, where staying in the same place more or less means death, and where escape routes often become their own prisons. (Full disclosure: Sparling's editor at Tin House is Mercury contributor Tony Perez.)

Mike Slater is the book's central figure, but Sparling casually drops in and out of a handful of different plot threads from the get-go, so by the time we realize how Slater fits into the jigsaw, we already know where he ends up: at an editing suite for a film production company. On the bank of video monitors in front of him, Slater hallucinates flashbacks that take us in and out of the narrative. I wasn't enamored with this device, but Sparling uses it sparingly, and it draws the reader into the character's secluded and profoundly damaged frame of mind as Slater tries to keep his thoughts collected following an electrifying accident in which his skull struck a power line as he rode on top of a freight train.

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Train hopping is one of Sparling's central themes, and many of the book's finest passages describe a lifestyle that most of us never get the chance to see: "Actually, Slater said, the best part is what the train shows you. In a car or truck you face forward and see what's coming, but a boxcar makes you look out the side. It shows you now, now, and now."

Following his recovery after the accident, Slater returns to Michigan looking for his train-hopping buddy, Harp. He finds (and falls for) Harp's glue-huffing girlfriend, Lane; her brother Charlie is a coke dealer and pimp who's looking for a fall guy in dynamiting a block of condos for the insurance money. But Wire to Wire doesn't read like a crime book or drug fiction. Rather, Sparling has reached, and grasped, for something outside of genre: a grim, occasionally comic look at those who live their lives on and off the rails.

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