BOOK REVIEW: Ugly as Sin
– By Michael Sellars
Nick Bullman, a successful wrestler has his career (and life) derailed after he is savagely mutilated by a couple of deranged grapple fans who have taken against his professional alter ego, The Widowmaker. Left quite literally faceless by the attack, Bullman drifts listlessly through life, a magnet for open-mouthed stares and cruel jibes, until the abduction of his granddaughter invests him with a renewed sense of purpose.
Fans of Garth Ennis’s Preacher and Joe Lansdale’s Freezer Burn are in for a treat. The prose is salty and robust, the plot is compelling, the action is brutal and the villains are grotesque.
Newman has a gift for kinetic description – the action sequences are exercises in deft, cinematic choreography – and a real knack for ratcheting-up the tension. Bullman ploughs his way through the story, impressive and dangerous, reminiscent of Richard Stark’s Parker, but he never appears invulnerable; in fact, he often seems one slip-up away from certain death as he gets more and more out of his depth.
Without doubt, Newman demands his readers possess a strong stomach, but this is also a book with considerable heart. Bullman is not only physically damaged, he is also psychologically and emotionally flawed, both as a result of the attack that took away his face and the selfishness with which he lived his life prior to the attack. It’s Bullman’s desire to be a better person, a better father and a better grandfather that makes Ugly as Sin such a captivating read.
If the book has one weakness, and it is only a minor one, it’s that it wears its subtext on its sleeve. Newman could as easily have left the whole ‘who’s the real monster here?’ stuff unspoken, as the message is communicated perfectly by the characters, their actions and circumstances. But this is a tiny gripe and the heavy-handed subtext does nothing to slow the pace of the book.
Not wanting to end this review on a down note, I’d like to tip my hat to Newman’s ability to invest even minor characters with distinct personalities. It would be easy, given the propulsive nature of the story and the sheer gravity of a character like Bullman, for the supporting cast to consist almost entirely of ciphers, but this is far from the case. The likes of Leon, Claudette, Russo, Shabazz, Coko Puff, Jeremy, Little Sister and Balfour all rise from the page.
This is my first experience of James Newman. I’m certain it won’t be my last.