Ugly As Sin has a hard-hitting premise and a scrappy attitude, and even though the punches don’t always connect I give author James Newman full credit for swinging for the fence on every page.
Described as the first in a “white-trash noir” series, Ugly introduces us to Nick Bullman, a former pro wrestler known to his fans as “The Widowmaker.” Caught after a show by a couple of fans who take their sports entertainment a little too seriously, Bullman is left horribly disfigured. A subsequent altercation with his boss, a promoter who seems to be channeling the worst traits of Vincent K. McMahon*, turns physical and slams the door shut on Bullman’s career.
Broke and rudderless, Bullman is drifting through life when he receives a call from his estranged daughter Melissa. The granddaughter he never knew he had has been kidnapped, and while the cops are doing their best to find her, they’re getting nowhere fast. Fearing the worst, Melissa begs her father to return to the small town of Midnight, North Carolina, to see if he can help.
Newman does small-town seedy well, bringing a certain authentic ickiness to Midnight and many of its inhabitants. He populates the town with a good and varied cast of characters, including a well-meaning cop and an overzealous meth head. It’s a colorful crew, but Newman mostly keeps them from lapsing into stereotypes.
The book’s only real stumbles come towards the end, when Newman falls back on a couple of cliches to propel the story to its conclusion. We have the villains who drug our hero and then proceed to discuss their overall plan in great detail, answering questions and filling in plot holes while their victim drifts in and out of consciousness at conveniently-timed intervals. We also have the villain who makes the crucial, rookie-level mistake of not patting down the incapacitated hero when he’s down and out. These issues hurt a little more because so much of the story’s resolution relies on them.
That being said, these issues weren’t enough to ruin my enjoyment of the book. Ugly As Sin is brutal, fast-paced, grimy fun, a compulsive page-turner with characters you’ll be deeply invested in by story’s end. Here’s hoping this “white-trash noir” series continues with Nick Bullman front and center. I’ve got a feeling there’s a lot of life left in that mangled old fighter, and a lot of dark corners to explore in Midnight. I know I’ll be the first in line for a ticket when the show comes back to town.
Ugly As Sin is now available in an oversized hardcover edition, limited to 75 copies. The book includes three bonus (unrelated) short stories: “Dirty Black Summer,” “Tonight I Sing My Blues for You,” and “The Good, The Bad, The Severely Maladjusted.”
*Vincent K. McMahon is the owner of the global sports entertainment brand World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). He is, depending on who (and when) you ask, either a brilliant businessman or a soulless bully – or, most likely, a little of both.