Mean Man & Star Juice — Overview:
Synopsis: "Can you show me what you do? Just give me a taste of why the Peace Department is so happy to know somebody who's so happy to know math." With this question, the stogy James Lawyer confronts his new partner, Rufus, who is better known by the pseudonym Mean Man, a mathematical thrill seeker with the uncommon ability to manipulate the physical world. Mean Man's sudden arrival coincides with a strange global transition that has outlawed math from society, giving it almost entirely to computers. Society has become very relaxed as a result, but Mean Man and James are aware that this casual composure has also made the world vulnerable to mischievous mathematical threats.
Their case begins with El Fuego Flameante, a subversive group comprised of migrant Mexican workers who, for suffering cruel disenfranchisement prior to the transition, became mathematical wizards as they tirelessly kept pace with the grand inflation that befell them. These calculative minds are suspected of plotting vengeance, but James and Mean Man can't confirm as much, even with the help of the aurally adept Melman the Hamster, who is brought into the case with some small degree of puzzlement on the part of James.
Stranger still, a woman named Star Juice drops into their lives, carrying with her a trenchant capacity for quantum physics, and a rough romantic history with Mean Man. Star Juice reluctantly helps the boys with their case, eventually discovering the presence of an old nemesis, Timothy the Savvy Squid, who is employing a lot of El Fuego Flameante whiz kids for a bold, clandestine project. If anything, Timothy is the reason this organization has moved from the ranks of the disaffected to that of possible scourge, threatening the world's wiry way of life.
Timothy is a study in demi-villains, and the great mystery of the story is whether his aims are really evil, or merely annoying. The repartee between the good, the bad, and the not-so bad evolves with a host of wacky, fully rounded characters, and with the persistent exploration of how this fantastical world devoid of math can function properly. For James Lawyer, it's all a lesson in loosening up, expanding his understanding of life, and accepting the fun within.
Raison d'Être: Mean Man engages and transports by projecting a great respect for the particulars of an alternate reality. Character development and world-building are paramount, as the text balances literary fiction sensibilities with snappy dialogue and a healthy repertoire of humor. Readers will find the narrative tends toward a great crime caper, with a sufficient degree of mystery fostered throughout. The absurd characters may have been pulled from a science fiction or fantasy novel, only that they've been given more rounded persona than they'd display if stuck within their respective genres.
The most odd linguistic feature of the story is how it avoids mathematical references. As the fictional world shuns math, so does the narrative abide by those fictitious guidelines. There are two tricks involved here: The first is eliminating phrases like, "there are two tricks involved here," while the second is to do it seamlessly, without the reader acknowledging an awkward spot of mangled words where a number should have been.
Also of great importance, Mean Man is fun. There is a decent measure of conflict, but the story does not dwell on murder and death, these being strangely absent from a crime caper. I chose to elicit deep feeling by endearing readers to the characters' personalities, not by making terrible things happen to them—at least not so much that isn't overcome, or treated with a refreshing sense of optimism. In short, Mean Man proves that good, thought-provoking literature can be entertaining, and free of depression.
Cultural Notes: While the disparate origins of the cast are obscured, many of the characters do not share the same skin color or social disposition, (although the story is not a commentary on race relations, and does not focus on racial disparity). There is, however, deliberate reference to the current state of Mexican-American relations. The somewhat crass anti-establishment organization, El Fuego Flameante, is inspired by time spent with scholarly Mexicans who defy prevailing stereotypes alive in modern America. El Fuego Flameante champions their technical expertise and shares their unhinged sense of humor. The story does not editorialize about any modern cultural condition, but references the same by twisting our reality into more absurd situations fueled by similar forces. Of note, the story finds a place for the organization—a happy ending for their plight—as it must be noted that the real danger our fictional heroes encounter comes from a most nefarious source, and is not a product of any cultural movement known to our world.
Characters & Story Lines:
As James and Rufus track down El Fuego Flameante, numerous confrontations, rivalries, and liaisons develop throughout the story, notably...
The Nucleus: James Lawyer keeps a rigorous work schedule only to be pestered by the cavalier Mean Man, who does take his work seriously but also manages to turn life and death antics into something of a game. For his part, Mean Man is also a tremendous cook, and the lavish meals he prepares serve as welcome respite for the members of the group, always helping to organize their case notes and figure out the next course of action. And then there's Melman the Hamster, who provides unmatched reconnaissance with unsurpassed loyalty to both friend and folly. Melman is happy no matter what, keeping spirits high whenever circumstances look grim.
The Love Interest: The El Fuego Flameante case takes off when Walter, a local newscaster in North America, falls victim to mathematical torture. For failing to receive help from local authorities, Walter's daughter, Erin from Seattle, seeks out the London Peace Department agents who had earlier stumbled across her father's case, namely James and Rufus. Upon meeting Erin, James is immediately smitten, thus throwing him into a dilemma as he tries to balance his desire to uphold a spotless reputation for work with his natural attraction to Erin. For all their careful attention to personal issues, Erin and James are tested through numerous affronts, including the eventual kidnapping of Walter.
The Back-Story: When Star Juice arrives, she is exhausted and frazzled, anxiously seeking rest and relaxation some place far away from her troubles. What she finds is her former boyfriend, Mean Man, in the midst of a caper involving Timothy the Savvy Squid, who happens to be another ex-partner whose relationship intervened between the time she spent with Rufus and the present. Begrudgingly, she agrees to help Mean Man and James, becoming ever more engrossed in the case. But as she might have feared, an awesome nemesis tracks her down—the very trouble from which she had been taking a reprieve—and she finds herself in the throws of a monumental duel. The battle between Star Juice and the super-villain Like Rain disrupts life across the globe, including the operations of El Fuego Flameante and Timothy the Savvy Squid, causing the latter to intervene. Timothy manages to subdue Like Rain, which in turn grants him a supreme measure of immunity from the investigation Mean Man and James are conducting. But, as is his nature, Timothy is sure to abuse this grace.
The Bad Sidekicks: Working for Timothy are the manipulative Cacophony Jane and the deranged Safety Bill, who has a strange penchant for wielding power tools in ways not recommended by the manufacturer. Together, they carry out a bevy of orders that include mathematically torturing Walter, Erin's father, running a public relations campaign for Timothy's flourishing enterprise, and ruining the global economic system in a not so subtle fashion. However, for their own reasons, Jane and Bill both feel under-appreciated and unfulfilled. They are not intrinsically bad people, and the mystique of working for Timothy is fast wearing thin on them. The only problem with their wavering loyalty is that Timothy is a master of manipulation, and even as they come to befriend Mean Man and his compatriots, Jane and Bill cannot keep from playing out their roles just as Timothy prescribed.
The Good Sidekicks: While there are many characters who flirt with both good and bad inclinations, James and Rufus benefit from the services of some specialized assistants. Within Mean Man's oddly stylish home compound is a team of laboratory cats named Paco, Taco, and Spook. While they appear quite normal, they operate a facility of complex machinery capable of divining a lot of valuable information, their speech is laced with inuendo and sarcasm, and they rather enjoy playing miniature golf. Apart from the cats, a rather precious labrador also does his part for the group. Nix the proto-dog is just like any happy dog, except that he carelessly manipulates the laws of quantum physics. So advanced is his ability that only Star Juice can take him for a walk and successfully bring him back to the same level of existence. This sort of power naturally irritates the cats to no end, but Nix proves to be an invaluable source of help when it matters most.
The Finale: Perhaps because he can only get away with it on earth, Timothy's ambition is to exploit the weird dynamics of society by opening an expansive theme park: Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland World. Mean Man and James manage to infiltrate the operation somewhat, receiving help from an old professor friend, Trafalgernon Longhenry, who is overseeing the talented El Fuego Flameante staff as they work to execute Timothy's plans. Trafalgernon allows the group to slip Melman's cousin, Dang-Big Dave, into the park's design team, a position to which he is suited, being an artist himself. The grand opening of this odd menagerie of entertainment and global catastrophe proves climactic. It is here that the group will find Erin's father and discover why Timothy was so interested in him, uncover Jane's true feelings for her hitherto criminal life, and unravel the mysterious conjunction of Safety Bill and Like Rain, which turns into a powerful trap laid by Timothy with the aim of exterminating Mean Man and Star Juice.