Parabellum, by Greg Hickey / ****

Parabellum-3D-cover-85There’s no avoiding where Parabellum is going. The opening chapter lays it out, as two men start loading up the bodies left after a mass shooting in Chicago. Nearby, two police officers – a veteran and his partner – look over the scene in bewilderment, trying to come to terms with what could make someone commit such a heinous act.

That same pondering forms the basis and purpose for Parabellum, which follows four characters – identified only as the student, the ex-athlete, the programmer, and the veteran – through their lives and experiences, helping us understand how each could become the person who pulled the trigger at that beach. In Hickey’s hands, each character comes to show a different side of modern society that could alienate and frustrate people, humanizing all of these people who, we soon realize, could all be capable of such horror. The veteran suffers from massive PTSD and is all but abandoned by the systems designed to provide him care. The ex-athlete’s CTE, brought on by too many blows to the head in soccer games, has left her feeling purposeless and adrift in a life that she’s slowly unable to function in. The student feels like an outcast, mocked by those around him and grappling with a mind that’s unable to fight back against its own depression and mental illness. And the programmer is something else entirely, feeling separate and above most of the people around him, as though the morality and rules of society don’t apply to him in the same way.

For a while, I assumed Parabellum was a written variation on “hyperlink cinema” a la BabelMagnolia, and more – movies where a series of characters were laid out and then slowly, gradually interacted in ways that would only become clear as the story unfolds. That’s not really what Hickey has planned, though; while there are brief connections between our characters, the parallels here are more psychological and social – failed health systems; support networks that fade away; trauma that’s hard to recover from; mental illness that goes untreated; and so on. The end result is truly four separate stories entirely, and from a plot perspective, that can make the book a little frustrating, as I ended it feeling that two of the stories never really connected back to the incident that seemed to be the purpose of the book as a whole.

That’s only from a plot perspective, though, and while I have to take that into account, it’s evident that Hickey is less interested in this specific incident and more these growing problems in society that lead to the incidents – in other words, Parabellum is about the causes, not the effects. And what it may lack in a decisive plot, it makes up for in humanization of its characters, even as they go to darker and darker places. There’s little stigmatization of their illnesses, their traumas, their actions, or their beliefs; instead, more than anything, Hickey seems to be “listening” to them, not judging them. 

As a piece of storytelling, Parabellum is a little frustrating, as I mentioned; the stories are more about their themes and ideas than the plot, and while I admire that, it didn’t stop me from feeling a little unsatisfied as two of the stories resolved themselves in ways completely unlinked to anything else. I also found the disconnect between the programmer and the other three characters a bit odd; while the other three are deeply humanized and understood, the programmer seems less so, with more focus on his own perceived superiority and near sociopathy without the time spent showing us quite as much how he became this person. That’s a statement in of itself, and one that I find compelling – that sometimes, there is no cause, no matter what we hope for – but it does make him somewhat less rich and satisfying than the other characters.

But really, that doesn’t quite take away from the humanity and empathy on display in Parabellum, which asks us not just to look at the victims of these horrible crimes, but to understand those who commit them, so that we may prevent more crimes to come. To do so can be challenging, especially as the characters come closer and closer to lines that can’t be uncrossed, but Hickey handles it with sensitivity and care, and that’s something that I will always advocate for, no matter what. (book not yet listed on Amazon)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s