Columns > Published on September 22nd, 2021

Jack of Shrugtown

All images via David James Keaton

This summer, I stayed at a cabin in the woods hoping for inspiration to strike but read my first Jack Reacher novel instead. I ended up choosing Die Trying, a.k.a. Jack Reacher number 2 (not just because it took place in a cabin in the woods) and holy balls did it have a lot of shrugging in it! But let me back up. I know, I know, everyone hates an origin story. Sorry in advance…

So my father-in-law, who also has a cabin up there, found this big box of Jack Reacher novels at a garage sale, and I thought, "Why not?" and decided to crack open one of the early ones. But not the very first Jack Reacher novel, because, just like you, I did not want an origin story. I did not want the book where Jack Reacher first learned to reach. I just wanted one of these books that was indicative of the series, so that I might one day be able to understand the massive popularity of Lee Child’s titular hero.

My only run-in with Jack Reacher up to that point was the on-screen Tom Cruise version, which (maybe because I was living in Pittsburgh at the time) I mostly enjoyed. It had a harrowing opening sequence, some truly baffling banter, and (okay this is probably why I liked it) a workmanlike but very effective car chase that went right past my actual apartment! And it had Herzog in it for god’s sake. But the fans of the books, as well as the author, were never on board with Tom Cruise as their main man with the hands like canned hams (sung to the tune of Shaft). And you have to be making some serious money on your novels to actually be disappointed with any adaptation (let alone one with Tom Cruise), but I also think there’s some of that Michael Crichton Syndrome going on with that drama.

Let me explain. During an interview, Crichton once talked about how his hobby was guessing other people's height by standing real close to them whenever possible. [Editor's note: he's confusing Michael Crichton and William Goldman.] He would then debunk the popular narratives surrounding the most strapping leading men, outing them as slightly-to-a-whole-lot-less-strapping and, inevitably, when Crichton was standing over Tom Cruise at a pool party or some shit (I didn't memorize the interview, cut me some slack), he said, "Well, I'm 6' 9" so Cruise must have been... 5’ 4” or whatever." Never mind that Tom Cruise is a national treasure who does his own stunts and is trying to die on film for our entertainment! What I’m saying here is basically Lee Child (just like Michael Crichton did) is playing the Long Game when it comes to telling people they're tall. Crichton did this by pretending he was an amateur carnival barker at pool parties, and Lee Child writes hundreds (thousands?) of books featuring a very tall protagonist in the hope that someday when Hollywood comes knocking it will be a guy who has trouble reaching the doorbell. Because Jack Reacher shouldn't have trouble reaching anything, you understand? Anyway, we get it, Lee Child, you're tall! 6' 4”, exactly one inch shorter than your literary avatar, and equal to two Tom Cruise’s in a trench coat. And you know what, when you're that tall, you probably have broad shoulders, right? And you know what you do with those shoulders? 

You fucking shrug.

And, boy oh boy, do people in this book shrug! I don’t think anyone can really understand how much shrugging is happening in this book without experiencing it for themselves. This novel has all the shrugs. There are no more shrugs for anyone after this book. I think I started to notice all the shrugging about a third of the way through, so I started dog-earring the pages, and then later I went back to try and find them all, and I found even more. So there’s somewhere between 90 and a hundred shrugs in here. Is a hundred a lot of shrugs for a 300-page book? I honestly don’t know. But it sure felt like a lot of shrugs when it was happening. They should have called this book Shrugtown, number 17 in the Shruge Knight Chronicles. This book should have come with a jacket that it could shrug to the floor right before it kicks your ass. This book rolls its shoulders more than the Henley Rowing Regatta rowing team. Try it. Open it to any page and your odds are one in three that you’ll discover Jack Reacher is very, very tall and his shoulders are carrying the weight of a hundred bestsellers on them. Reacher has come here to shrug and chew bubblegum. And he’s all out of bubblegum.

Here are some other interesting things I noticed on this journey. Every so often Reacher would “shrug again,” but there wouldn’t be a previous shrug. Or Reacher would “shrug again” after “shaking his head curiously” or “slump.” So I’m guessing this happened because an editor attempted to remove some of these rampant shrugs, then someone forgot to scrub the second shrug in that particular series of shrugs rather than the first shrug. Also, at one point, about two thirds of the way through the book, Reacher didn’t just shrug, he shrugged his motherfucking SHOULDERS, as in “Reacher shrugged his shoulders.” That doesn’t sound too strange at first, but bear with me. This opens a whole new can of worms, you see. Meaning, what in the wide wide world of sports was he shrugging before that moment, if not his shoulders? What if all those shrugs referred to something else on his body? Do we even know what shrugs are? How do I know green to me is green to you?

Now, I don’t want to give you the impression that the shrugs never stopped. Sometimes you did get a shrug reprieve during the action, and there’d be an occasional ten pages in a row where Reacher just didn’t have TIME to shrug because he was tasting the air with his supernatural tongue (don’t ask), trying to figure out how to shoot a target a literal mile away. It might have been further than that actually. Can we just talk about that scene real quick? It’s a target shoot to the death, and at first you think Reacher’s shots aren’t hitting the bull’s-eye, but then everyone realizes he was making words with his bullets. Just the opposite of what Lee Child does actually!

Conversely, you’d also get a stretch of ten pages or so with at least one shrug on every page, but then, oh shit, here comes some double shrugs for a while (which meant I had to dog-ear the top and the bottom, then sweat buckets hoping there wasn’t going to be a third shrug). A rash of double shrugs usually indicated you were going to get that two- or three-page breather with some big action scene. Like Reacher had shot his shrug load there for a minute (ew).

But even I wasn’t expecting what happened next, what I consider to be The Final Boss of this novel’s shrugapocalypse, when (I am not making this up) sixteen agents actually shrug all at once.

By the way, out of curiosity I checked my own most recent novel for shrugs, and indeed I had 17 shrugs (all completely necessary!). And that’s out of 500 pages. Die Trying was, what, almost a hundred shrugs and only 300 pages? I mean, I don’t want to get into a pissing contest with a man who’s four inches taller than me because simple biology suggests he’d piss further, but can he write his entire name in the snow without bullets? He cannot! And from stem to stern his entire name is a mere eight letters long… Anyhow, my point is that, when it comes to my shrugs, it’s quality, no quantity.

Side note: my sister, whose cat is named Jack Reacher because it ever-so-slowly reaches for anything you’re eating, questioned my scientific method here, and she wondered if I had bothered to check any other Jack Reacher books for extra shrugs. Nope. But I did look for instances of “nodded” in this book, and there are probably as many “noddeds” and “nodded agains” as there are “shruggeds.” But until someone invents a dog with three ears, there’s no way I could keep track of all that on this single book.

Some theories! These shrugs might be like automatic writing, like Lee Child writes these books in a fugue state, so the shrugs are invisible to not just him, but the reader as well. I’ve never heard a complaint about the shrugs in his books, so I imagine that shrugs might be everywhere, and have always been everywhere, and maybe only I have a problem with them. Which made me very paranoid that everyone is shrugging at me all time, but I never noticed until now. Am I shrugging right now? Are you? It’s like Red Car Syndrome, where as soon as you paint your neighbor’s car red, you start to see your neighbor everywhere. Or is this shrugging thing just another signpost signifying Reacher’s excessive manliness. Are shrugs inherently masculine, like the sort of thing a man of action, not a man of words, would do? A shrug is worth a million words, and a real man has no time for words, Dr. Jones. Or as the saying goes, if a million chimps shrugged for a million years they’d type the works of Shakespeare. Did you know that Shakespeare called shrugging “the beast with two backs”? Wait, no, that’s just another one of his phrases for fucking.

One particularly baffling hiccup was way late in the game, when faced with another against-all-odds/action-packed dilemma, and… “Reacher said nothing.” Then, two lines later, “Reacher said nothing” again. This felt like the earmarks of editorial guidance all over again. No shrugs? No nods? Impossible. He said nothing without using his body to do it? Come on. I could just feel the frustration coming off Lee Child as those two unspent shrugs ricocheted around his head and his hero’s shoulders instead of the page.

But maybe, just maybe, there’s this deluge of nods and shrugs in a novel like this because these motions are performatively identical. As philosopher J.L. Austin explains, a shrug is just part of a “speech act,” and any individual not only presents information but also performs it. Therefore, a nod or a shrug may be accomplishing the exact same action, rhetorically, even if syntactically they would seem to be complete opposites. Fun fact: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was originally titled Atlas Nodded, Grinned Then Rolled the Earth Down One Arm and Then the Other Something Something the Virtue of Shellfish…

So, as Austin might point out, the shrugs here (maybe surprisingly) don’t replace dialogue in the book after all. When Jack Reacher is shrugging away, it’s typically a buffer between a question and a response. For example, someone could say, “Hey, Jack, forget about all the shrugs. What did you think of the book?” And Jack would shrug. But then he might add, “You know what? It wasn’t terrible!” Then he would bump his head on a ceiling fan and eat it like an apple. Because haven’t you heard, this guy is huge! So keep him happy. Hugs not shrugs, bro.

Get Die Trying at Bookshop or Amazon

Get She Was Found in a Guitar Case at Bookshop or Amazon 

About the author

David James Keaton's fiction has appeared in over 100 publications, and his first collection, Fish Bites Cop! Stories to Bash Authorities, was named the 2013 Short Story Collection of the Year by This Is Horror. His second collection of short fiction, Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead, received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly, who said, “Decay, both existential and physical, has never looked so good.” He is also the author of the novels The Last Projector and Pig Iron (maybe soon to be a motion picture), as well as the co-editor of the upcoming anthology Hard Sentences: Crime Fiction Inspired by Alcatraz. He teaches composition and creative writing at Santa Clara University in California.

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