What in the world is a book with the title “Squat” about? Here is the publisher’s description:
â€œWe live in a squat. We donâ€™t know squat. We donâ€™t have squat. We donâ€™t do squat. We donâ€™t give a squat. People say weâ€™re not worth squat.â€
In the shadow of Wall Streetâ€™s wealth, homeless people with names like Squid, Saw, and Bonehead live in abandoned buildings known as â€œsquatsâ€ where life is hand to mouth, where fear and violence fester. The light in Squidâ€™s obsessive-compulsive mindâ€™s eye is Rachel, a loving soup kitchen missionary who tells him about faith and unfaith, hypocrisy and justice, the character of God and finding identity in Him. And in the wild twenty-four-hour passage of literary time that is Squat, Squid begins to believe that his life may actually amount to something.
When I first heard about the book and saw the blurb I was intrigued by the potentially unique perspective it offered; particularly as the author has a great deal of real life experience in this area having worked in inner city ministries in New York since 1986. With an M.Div. from Princeton and Ph.D. from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, and a well received non-fiction book on the subject, I was interested to see how he communicated his world and experiences in fiction form.
Unfortunately while I did find the subject matter and perspective interesting, I was mostly disappointed with the book as a whole. Field sets up the story with a strong first chapter and the novel successfully helps the reader to conceptualize and experience the daily issues that the homeless face. But after a strong start the story begins to drag and mostly falls flat. The Publishers Weekly review sums it up well:
While Field may know this world well, the characters he creates are not compelling enough to get readers to care very much about what happens to them. The dialogue is decent (if a few of the witnessing scenes feel improbable), but the story moves far too slowly to an unsatisfying conclusion. While this could have made a fine short story, there’s not enough material for a book.
These two problems (a lack of pace and character development) are inter-related. The lack of character depth only serves to highlight the lack of plot and pace. Squid is by far the best developed character, and Field deftly plays out his back story, but outside of this the story is too one dimensional. We don’t get to know the deeper motivations of anyone except for Squid and so the secondary characters feel like props instead of people. When Unc – the highly literate and philosophical drunk – gives one of his perorations it feels forced rather than natural. Everything feels overly plotted. Squid goes out on his own and returns to find Unc. Unc gets on his soapbox and either waxes philosophical or, in his interaction with Jason, becomes combative. Squid bites his thumbs and rolls them in his shirt. It is hot out. It stinks. Obviously, Field is trying to communicate what this other world looks, feels, tastes, and smells like while also trying to introduce some thought provoking perspectives on the larger social problem. But his descriptions are inartful for the most part and the musings and speeches bring the story to a halt.
The Christians in the story likewise feel like caricatures. Rachel is the beautiful, funny, and giving girl that everyone wants to be around; in other words the perfect Christian witness. Jason is the rival who turns out not to be that bad. Remarkably, Squid has this incredible spiritual experience with Rachel and even starts to like Jason despite his feelings of jealousy. It all seems a little too easy.
In a fast paced novel a certain lack of character development can be forgiven, but in Squat the story is simply Squid running from Saw. He interacts with others in the neighborhood but these encounters don’t add up to anything. In one sense this barrenness and simplicity mirrors the loneliness and ostracism of living on the streets. But that is not enough to hold the reader’s attention. There are also few twists or surprises to ratchet up the tension and keep you focused on the story. In the run up to the climax Squid has a dream which reveals much of how the final events will play out, but inexplicably he wakes up and promptly forgets what he dreamed. This takes a lot of the suspense out of the ending without adding anything. Why would Squid dream the events that were to follow but not remember them in any way? There is one interesting twist, but even that lacks a real punch as it seems unrelated to the larger story.
In a more literary novel the language and emotional landscape would carry the reader. In the work of Michelle Herman for example, there is very little traditional plot but she skillfully paints the emotional and psychological terrain of her characters in such a way that you feel pulled in. Squat feels awkwardly in between an action orientated story and a more psychologically focused one.
I don’t mean to come off as overly harsh. This is Field’s first novel and it is clearly a subject that he feels passionately about (the novel’s proceeds are going to his ministry in New York). I applaud his ambition and perspective. But I have to wonder if in trying to bring the world he cares so much about to life through fiction he didn’t bite off more than he could chew. I think PW had it right, Squat would have been better served as a reworked short story rather than as a full fledged novel.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. If you want to learn more about the book, its author, and the world it seeks to capture check out the website. They have chapter samples, discussion group guides, links to other reviews, promotional videos, and video podcasts with the author.