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Michael Gallagher's Debut Novel 'Body and Blood' Isn't Your Average Exorcist Tale

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In culinary terms, certain flavors compliment one another, and the more palatable combinations become iconic, even a part of our collective culture: hamburgers and fries, peanut butter and jelly, spaghetti and meatballs, pizza and beer, salted caramel. In entertainment, too, the mixing of distinctly separate genres can oftentimes yield potent new hybrid strains of literary or cinematic enjoyment. Vampire fiction, for instance, though undeniably a foundational cornerstone of horror, lends itself easily to the overwrought melodrama of gothic literature and the bodice-ripping eroticism of romance novels. The shadowy essence of hard-boiled pulp detective stories paired with sleek science fiction tropes eventually birthed the cyberpunk movement. Even the banal romantic comedy is a cross-pollination of two seemingly incompatible narrative types that merged to form the silver screen equivalent of apple pie and ice cream.

Of course, some genre mash-ups, like some food pairings, are at best an acquired taste (horror-comedy), and at worst barely edible (sci-fi westerns). At loose somewhere in the world is surely an author or auteur burning with desire to pen the first 'animated tap dancing buddy cop torture porn' extravaganza, but there's a reason, after all, why The Powers That Be in the entertainment industry stick to the tried-and-true genre formulas. The line between creative innovation and immolation is thread-thin, and not everyone succeeds in making their particular vision a fulfilling effort.

So it is that Seven Sorrows Publishing takes a gamble with Body and Blood, the debut novel from Plattsburgh, New York based author Michael Gallagher. Interweaving the grim 'n gritty Gibsonian tech-noir dystopia of the aforementioned cyberpunk milieu with the satanic panic shenanigans of The Exorcist and The Evil Dead and the supercharged action-fueled gun-fu common to John Woo may seem a particularly unusual literary concoction, but it's one that works precisely because, and not in spite of, this one-of-a-kind blending.

The base premise is simple: in a technologically advanced, morally bankrupt near future where bionic enhancements and New Age occultism run rampant, inner cities have been divvied up into crude criminal fiefdoms between battling urban street hoodlums, the mafia, and biker gangs. The lawgivers in these anarchic neighborhoods aren't the police, but rather the local dioceses of a resurgent Catholic Church, an institution so openly engaged in combat with otherworldly evil that it's empowered every priest with the authority to confront the Dark One's minions wherever they may be and by any means necessary.

When the St. Gregory Thurmaturgus Roman Catholic Church is broken into by demonically possessed thugs under the unearthly sway of an unassuming yet powerful bruja seeking to enact a ceremony to bring her devilish overlord to earth, the parish’s pastors, young Father Akono Nwosou and his 68-year-old mentor Father James Keenan, find themselves on the front line of a conflict as ancient as creation itself. Forging alliances with adjacent churches, Catholic-in-their-own-way Russian mobsters and a rough group of bikers known as The Widow Makers, Keenan and Akono strive to bring the battle to the witch herself, but will they be able to save the kidnapped young woman intended to be a sacrifice and save their own heads when a hired assassin comes after them?

There's much to appreciate about Body and Blood. Gallagher's prose pulses with heart-thumping energy and his dialogue crackles--every character has a clearly defined voice, and an abundance of laugh-out-loud humor appears in the most unexpected places (hardcore gangbanger Ojo bullies, swears at and threatens friend and foe alike...except the waitress at his local diner, to whom he's unerringly polite). The grime-coated future setting, too, is dynamic and decadent without overpowering the plot or sinking into cliché; instead of losing the storyline amid the world-building backdrop, Gallagher wisely focuses the reader's attention on the action instead.

As protagonists, Keenan and Akono shimmer with vitality; the older, haunted, hot-headed Keenan (who at one point has a biker ally staple a church flyer to the forehead of a nightclub owner), is portrayed as anything but your average priest. Hard-drinking, dark-humored and indelicate, he's witnessed a lifetime's worth of chaos and has made his share of costly mistakes, yet still relies on his ever-present faith to guide him through tough times. Akono is quieter, more thoughtful, but no less dangerous to potential enemies (he's described early on as 'six foot three, two hundred forty pounds of solid muscle and the color of dark English oak', and his brutally effective hand-to-hand skills back up the depiction). Together they form a vicious fighting pair, and the imagery Gallagher conjures during the novel's many kinetic sequences is riveting. Using an assortment of weaponry both worldly (conventional firearms, sci-fi inspired 'blasters', homemade holy water hand grenades) and not (each priest is an adept at various rites of exorcism and tote the rituals as surely as a rifle), they lead their motley crew with panache and swaggering style (their scripture-emblazoned muscle car is dubbed the Dopemobile) right up to the breathtaking climax.

If there's any weakness to the novel, it's one of denseness. The narrative becomes bogged down by the sheer amount of activity transpiring within its pages; the time, consideration and care Gallagher spent crafting even the secondary characters--Katherine, the Rectory's beyond-devout, gun-toting, no-nonsense type-A secretary, Zivon, the profane but good-hearted Russian mafia boss, The Blender, an ingenious hitman so outwardly dull he disappears into any crowd--is both evident and impressive, but there are so many characters, each vividly drawn and fascinating in their own right, that it becomes increasingly difficult to keep track of them, their motivations and importance in the overall scheme, frustrating readers eager to learn more. It's a competently realized experience Gallagher presents, and the concept could easily support a series; as a stand-alone novel it feels too compact, to the point that Keenan and Akono regretfully lose their place as the book's central figures by the third act, becoming just two of the many enticing characters on display.

That said, there's far more to enjoy about Body and Blood than not. It's energetic, entertaining and replete with memorable characters, blood chilling horror and gripping ideas. Owing as much to the film The Boondock Saints as it does to Blade Runner, there's enough pulse-pounding action to satisfy any reader looking for something substantial to sink their teeth into, and it's for that reason that I give Body and Blood a perfectly respectable 3.5 (out of 5) on my Fang Scale. I look forward to seeing what Gallagher has in store for an encore.

Grade: 
3.5 / 5.0