The Samaritan, by Fred Venturini, is a new publication from Blank Slate Press, a young publisher from the American Midwest. The book tells the story of Dale Sampson and his best friend, Mack. Dale is an extremely ordinary boy from a small Illinois town. He's smart but sad, badly-socialized and a little pathetic. When Mack, the cool baseball-playing hotshot, takes Dale under his wing, it changes his life. He's still a smart, badly-socialized, pathetic loser, but he's no longer sad - Dale has a friend, and that changes his outlook on everything.
This Disney delight comes to an abrupt end in high school.
While Mack is gleefully leaping on every girl in school, Dale's attention is focused on just one: Regina. It isn't love, it is that gut-wrenching, harmless-yet-terrifying obsession of which only adolescents are truly capable of achieving. Mr. Venturini shows the reader many horrors during the course of The Samaritan, but none of them might be as painful as Dale's unreciprocated crush on Regina.
Dale does get some attention in return - mostly from Regina's boyfriend, Clint. The thuggish bully puts Dale in the hospital. While there, Dale discovers something new - he heals. And by that, I mean heals.
Dale's amazing recuperative power is the science-fictional twist of The Samaritan. It seems that, no matter what you do to him, he comes back. Cut off toes - they regrow. Remove kidneys - they come back. Eyes, legs, skin, lungs... it doesn't matter. Dale's a human salamander with an infinite capacity to absorb punishment. Of course, what good is being superhuman if your only power is to take a beating?
A chance encounter (at the Wal-Mart, no less) with another lost soul from his high school galvanizes Dale. After a series of painful pratfalls, he digs deep within himself (apologies for the pun) and finds a use for his superhuman regenerative ability. Mack's charismatic ruthlessness and Dale's willing martyrdom combine to create "The Samaritan", the hottest new property on television. And from there, things get even stranger.
The Samaritan delights in pointing out the utter insignificance of the individual - Dale is no better off for his powers, and certainly no more capable of enacting change in his surroundings. His quest to help others is fruitless when he acts alone. When he entrusts himself to the "system" of the television industry, he's able to make a difference, but only in an undirected, uncontrolled way. Even with his power, Dale is never able to achieve the few acts of "goodness" that he wants to achieve. His climactic achievement - when he does, actually, briefly, maybe do what he wants, it isn't because of his power - it is despite of it. (How's that for spoiler-free vagueness?)
A worthy comparison is Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. There are a few superficial parallels in terms of structure and characters. But whereas Mr. Kesey's book uses an insane asylum as a representation of contemporary society, Mr. Venturini chooses not to hide behind metaphor and his book ventures out into the world. The surreal, tragi-comic landscapes of both high school and Hollywood take a beating as his narrator moves from one to the other. The entirety of The Samaritan also has a greater, symbolic meaning, but that doesn't prevent the scenes therein from also having their own distinct value as satire.
Mr. Venturini's splatterpunk style also deserves a mention. Despite the Grand Guignol self-abuse that takes place chapter after chapter, Mr. Venturini never glorifies violence and never lets it rest easy on the reader's mind. What Dale can do - and does - is genuinely horrifying. Those moments where he becomes blase about his self-inflicted injuries are possibly the worst of all. There are also moments of Swingers-like social horror - scenes of embarrassment and destructive naivete that are almost as bad as having one's kidney scooped out repeatedly. At no level is this a pretty book or an easy one.
The brutal style is such that I won't recommend The Samaritan for everyone, but Mr. Venturini is never thoughtless with his efforts nor does he ever take violence lightly. The Samaritan's unblinking approach to horror - physical, mental or emotional - is carefully considered and, ultimately, an essential part of its message.
This is an overwhelming, uncomfortable and excellent book. Dale Sampson may be the closest thing our world ever gets to either a saint or a hero - what does that say about us?