I met Skinner Sweet and Tom Joad about four months back. Both murderers, one arrived in Hollywood fresh out of a watery grave, sharp-fanged and blood-hungry; the other sprung from jail early for good behavior and returned home to discover his family packing for California and hoping for a better life.
Sweet sits at the center of Scott Snyder’s brilliant “American Vampire.” Tom Joad is one of the central characters in John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Grapes of Wrath.” At first glance, the men aren’t much similar: Sweet’s a nearly conscience-less killer seeking twisted vengeful amusements and his next meal. Joad’s a Depression-era farm boy who, by book’s end, is on the verge of becoming a labor organizer for mistreated migrant farm workers.
But for their differences, both men are possessed of a fierce, American-flavored independence heavily tinged with anger (righteous in the case of Tom), and nearly devoid of other emotion.
When human, Sweet roams the west a brutal and merciless pillager; a proper outlaw with no inclination towards Robin Hooding. A consortium of European vampires determined to rule the west and amass great fortune kills Sweet, inadvertently turning him into the first of a new breed: American vampires, at once more primal and more powerful than their European ancestors, unafraid of sunlight and boldly independent, able to retain the core of their distinct human personalities in the face of overwhelming bloodlust.
Though he doesn’t hanker for blood like Sweet, Tom Joad also feels no remorse at the taking of life, and Steinbeck leads us to believe he need not feel any. In one instance, Tom’s own life is threatened; in another, Tom kills a man for murdering his friend. He does what had to be done; what he does is therefore the just thing to do.
Tom’s sharp and matter-of-fact sense of justice eventually lifts him above the other characters in the book, in a moral sense. By book’s end, he’s a fugitive and a rebel, preparing to take on The Man in the name of human rights. His intellectual awakening sets him apart from the struggling, hungry masses around him. He’s been gifted with the ability to abstract, and he seems to do so with a purely logical empathy.
I found not only Tom, but also the book overall to suffer for a lack of spirit. I don’t mean that Steinbeck wrote the book from a dispassionate place; in fact, the book is an impassioned plea for the kind of change Tom hopes to effect. But the passion comes in the form of overt speechifying on the part of a preacher and, later, Tom and his Ma, rather than from a deep sympathy engendered in a reader by coming to care about the characters on the page.
Steinbeck intersperses narrative chapters devoted to the Joads with lovely, lyrical, far too lengthy, poetic and important chapters underlining his message: The people are good, the people are suffering, the corporations are bad and are keeping the people down. While these sections are worthy of the praise I heaped on them in the last sentence, they also serve to separate reader from characters at a regular clip, making an already tenuous connection that much more difficult.
The narrative sections, while story-serving, read as flat and lackluster as the Great Depression itself. Perhaps this is Steinbeck’s point: These lives are dusty and hardscrabble and lacking much joy, and the prose reflects that.
I empathized with the Joad family as much as anyone would empathize after reading a catalogue of hardships suffered, but not as much as I’d emphasize with someone in whom I’d grown personally interested.
Not so American Vampire. I’m bonkers for Skinner, in a no-empathy, all-interest way: He’s a mean, mean pointy-toothed demon with a bloodsucking twang and I surely love to read him. I do empathize with several other characters, particularly starlet-cum-vamp Pearl Jones, who’s turned toothy against her will. She struggles with her new self, trying to maintain her relationship with human Henry while managing new and desperate urges.
What’s more genius than even the characters, though, is the way Snyder and artist Rafael Albuquerque meld the essence of the new American vampires with the relatively new country*. Both country and vampire have struggled to break with European overlords and have forged a unique personality in the process: independent and bold verging on rash.
Both Snyder and Steinbeck prove masterful at weaving the story of a country into the story of men, of intertwining historical elements of an era seamlessly with small, telling, individual moments: Tom ably tinkering with a faltering jalopy, Sweet gnawing on a stick of striped candy.
Good reads both, and while the English major in me appreciated all that Steinbeck offers, Snyder ultimately earns my vote in this month’s bedside table face-off.
I’m going let Stephen King wrap this up for me. He wrote the introduction to the first American Vampire collection, and his praise is well written and spot-on. I love his introduction nearly as much as I loved the rest of the book. Here’s the opening bit. If I’ve failed to convince you to read American Vampire, maybe King can.
“Here’s what vampire shouldn’t be: pallid detectives who drink Bloody Marys and only work at night; lovelorn southern gentleman; anorexic teenage girls; boy-toys with big dewy eyes.
What should they be?
Killers, honey. Stone killers who never get enough of that tasty Type-A. Bad boys and girls. Hunters. In other words, Midnight America. …
[Scott Snyder’s] ambition for the continuing story of Skinner Sweet (and his victims) was awesome: nothing more or less than to trace the emergence of America through the immortal eyes of a new kind of vampire, one that can walk in the sun.”