|NO WAY BACK
Matthew Klein (matthewklein.org)
Jim Thane is a restart executive, a Silicon Valley veteran who specialises in taking on failing companies and turning them around, making them profitable. Jim’s latest assignment has taken him to the oppressive heat of Florida, where Tao Software needs his specialist skills. Within days, Jim has discovered that someone has been embezzling – to the tune of three million dollars – from the company, and that the previous CEO was involved with a very unsavoury crowd. Caught between the FBI and the Russian mob, Jim quickly discovers the real reason he was given this job and just how much danger comes as part of the package.
On Monday morning, at one minute past nine o’clock, I sit in a Florida parking lot counting cars.
It’s an old trick, the easiest way to take a company’s pulse: arrive at the beginning of the business day – on the dot – and see how many employees have bothered to show up. You can tell a lot about a company from its parking lot.
No Way Back has the feel of two different novels glued together in the middle. In this case, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the transition from one to the other is much less jarring than that statement might lead you to believe. At the centre of the story is its narrator, Jim Thane, a Silicon Valley veteran who now specialises in rescuing or salvaging failing technology companies. When the story opens, Jim has been clean for two years, but spent most of the previous decade drinking, taking meth and paying high-class prostitutes for sex. Somewhere in that deep and distant past, a past of which he is now extremely ashamed, he was responsible for the death of his only son, who drowned in the bath whilst in Jim’s care. This tragedy has forced a wedge between Jim and his wife, and the tension between them is palpable in the numerous scenes they share.
The first half or so of the book concerns Jim’s efforts to turn Tao Software around. The company haven’t made any money for years, mainly because they have nothing to sell – their only product is very much still in development and no-one seems to have thought about how, or to whom, they might sell it anyway. Klein’s background in the industry provides him with plenty of material, and it’s often presented in a blackly humourous way that skewers both the industry and the individuals that work within it. As someone who has been making a living in software development for close to fifteen years, I found it cut very close to the bone, at once perfectly accurate and laugh-out-loud funny. With little more than the occasional nod to the threat that Jim will ultimately face, Klein still manages to make this first section of the novel extremely readable and strangely exciting. Which, given the novel’s corporate setting, is something to shout about.
The trouble starts on a Tuesday afternoon in September.
As the second section of the novel begins, Klein shifts up a couple of gears and brings the threat into the forefront of the narrative, taking Jim completely out of his comfort zone. As the pressure builds, Jim starts slipping into old habits, and when he discovers that his neighbours are watching his house, he starts realise that nothing is quite what it seems. Tension mounts – along with the body count – until the shock ending, one of only many twists and turns the reader will encounter along the way. For me, this final twist was one too far, and raised as many questions about the preceding narrative as it answered. Suddenly things that we had taken for granted no longer made any sense. While it by no means ruined the novel for me, it left me feeling slightly cheated and a little bit flat.
Jim Thane is a character that the reader will love to hate; his current job and his horrible past combine to leave very few likeable qualities, and yet we still feel sorry for him when we see how he is treated by his wife, or how his life begins to fall apart at the seams as he digs into Tao Software’s history. That said, he’s an engaging narrator and often brings some comic relief to otherwise tense situations. The combination of thoroughly unpleasant central character and corporate subject matter should make No Way Back the ultimate snooze-fest, but what we find is the complete opposite: engaging and entertaining, we are compelled to keep going, as much to see if Jim can turn the company’s fortunes around, as to find out what’s happening with the Russian mob.
Overall, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read. A slightly misjudged ending is the only thing holding it back from “excellent”. There is a ready-made audience in Klein’s peers in the software industry, or anyone who has ever worked in a corporate environment, but No Way Back will also have a much wider appeal and should be perfect for anyone who likes their thrillers to have a slow build and an ending that packs a punch.