Review: ‘Welcome to the Game’ by Craig Henderson

Welcome to the Game

Welcome to the Game presents one man’s scramble to stay afloat following the gruesome death of his wife. Conquered by costly addictions, CPS’ threat to unburden him of his daughter, and the collapse of his business, Spencer — a former rally driver — is seduced by the promise of fast, ample cash. 

Unfortunately, it’s proffered by a pitiless criminal named Dominic McGrath. Witnessing the man’s crew at work, Spencer quickly learns that any attempt at distancing himself from their operations may prove agonizing, if not outright fatal.

Henderson’s prose has a personality of its own, and it’s as dynamic and captivating as the cars it harbors. From his piercing words, a myriad of characters spills forth, tracing overlapping circuits. Along their length, the cruelty of deeds is contrasted against jovial depictions of wickedness, producing unequivocal humor at every turn.

When dissected, the text reveals an astute use of action verbs. Thanks to them, the piece comes alive, wheezing and snarling at Spencer and the reader alike. The speed with which the plot makes headway is a crucial detail, as it embodies the novel’s unique ambiance. 

As a result, we’re treated to fast cars, fast transitions, and fast derailments. What adds friction to an already bumpy passage is the unpredictability of the characters’ fates. Faced with the menace of casual, bone-scratching violence, the men operate like loose cogs in an overtaxed machine. The result is rather thrilling.

What keeps the gears shifting is the way the narrative alienates us from Spencer at times, allowing us to stay informed while he flounders. And with various characters stepping up to claim the spotlight, a game of ping-pong commences; one between false confidence and foreboding omnipotence.

What follows is a meaty — gory, even — presentation of rationalized violence. Aside from succeeding at horrifying the protagonist, it exposes the missing vein of sympathy in the men he keeps needling. The abundance of moving pieces they direct keeps us on our toes, forcing us to dodge the implications of the raunchy and unflinching scenes tossed our way.

To counterbalance this debauchery, the narrative begins to constrict possessively around Spencer, his daughter, and his best friend. It’s the thought of their survival, not his, that allows him to endure the unspeakable.

Spencer’s tightened grasp of mortality — and the connivance it demands of him — also acts as a catalyst for the emotional growth he’d been vetoing for years. Throughout the story, there’s a sense of mounting tension, often superseded by plain confusion. We’re conscious of McGrath’s plan, the fragments of which are left intentionally murky, but his designs prove too vague to lure us into a state of anticipation.

Instead, we persevere through the swerves, pit stops, and savagery because of the delightfully despicable natures of the characters we bump into along the way. And so, for the vast majority of the story, we indulge in a gritty comedy of errors.

And yet, the portrayal of Spencer’s world, full of folly and false bravado, proves too upbeat to form the foundation of a convincing thriller. The grim circumstances that arise, in no way limited to murder and suicide, only gain gravity when Spencer’s optimism flags. But this doesn’t occur until the last possible moment.

And, while undeniably well-written, the somewhat disoriented progress of the story fails to inspire true devotion in the reader. The ultimate purpose of every effort is too imprecise, ambition’s drive proves too weak.

This, perhaps, comes down to the circuitous nature of the narrative. Spencer’s entanglement with McGrath’s group is inevitable, his inner monologue glides over the same notions time after time, and his habits stick to him like a second skin.

Of course, this reality is toppled by the climax, when Spencer’s sobriety unveils the true build and poundage of dread; coincidentally leading to a more exhilarating reading experience. And it comes with its own heady aura; one that pastures the reader in coatings of intrigue.

Publication date: November 15, 2022 (Atlantic Monthly Press)

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