Graveyard-shift security guard and college dropout Charlie Price recently watched his fiancée die in his arms. Believing it will help him move past her death, he reads book after book after book from a list they created together during adventures in hole-in-the-wall bookstores. After a particularly irritating work shift, Charlie comes home to read a book, but, in the dead of night, an ice cream truck sits on the street corner blaring its tinkling music. When Charlie approaches the truck to ask the driver to turn off the music, the driver pulls out a gun and shoots at him. From then on, a series of badly thought out decisions leads Charlie on an adventure from his home in Pennsylvania to a terrorist cell in Yemen and back again, throwing the sad, resigned young man into situations he thought he would never be able to handle.
With dark humor and a brilliantly honed command of language, Marc Pietrzykowski has crafted a surprising, hilarious, and touching first novel. His previous poetry publications are evident in his fine prose. After the very first chapter of the book, protagonist Charlie Price already feels like a fully developed character, like a friend (though he is practically friendless) of whom readers will enjoy the company, despite his emotional turmoil over the recent loss of his fiancée and his what-does-it-matter attitude. Pietrzykowski’s prose grasps the reader immediately, thrusting them into Charlie’s head. Not just Charlie comes to life on the page; so too do all the other characters, even those who only appear in a few scenes. The settings as well are developed wonderfully.
The first half of the book is both poetically tender and comically scatological. The second half, however, takes a sharp turn from Charlie’s day-to-day life disrupted by the murderous ice cream man when he is suddenly, and almost inexplicably, kidnapped by terrorists and mistaken for a rogue soldier. Charlie’s dark sense of humor, paired with his existential depression and hallucinations of his deceased fiancée, gets him into more trouble at every turn. The snowball effect of the plot keeps the reader turning the pages, yearning to know what Charlie will do next. And while the unexpected plot twist splits the novel into two distinct halves, the successfully character-driven plot makes Music Box Dancer one of the most entertaining and original novels I have recently read.
It is a rare occurrence for a writer to create a novel that features a wholly developed and likeable—though sad and often lazy—protagonist, a distinct sense of humor that begs a reader to laugh out loud, and finely tuned and poetic prose, but Marc Pietrzykowski has done just that. This is a touching story that makes both a political statement and takes the main character on a touching journey to redemption and recovery. If he continues with his excellent work, Pietrzykowski could become the next Chuck Palahniuk (with the same desperate need of a nom de plume). A highly recommended and memorable experience.