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Book Review: Title 13

Title 13. Michael A. Ferro. Harvard Square Editions, February 1, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 486 pages.

Reviewed by Michelle Burwell.

Michael Ferro’s debut novel, Title 13, weaves a story of an outdated, incompetent government agency with a lost, skeptical, and beleaguered protagonist. Heald Brown, an alcoholic misanthrope, is working for the Chicago Regional Census Center when classified government documents go missing. Even if he didn’t doubt the agency’s ability to find the documents, he is less concerned with the missing paperwork than with his internal turmoil and the anxiety that threatens his relationships with his family, his coworkers, and the women in his life. The novel reads a bit like an old spy novel in that everything feels dreary, outdated, dejected and generally broken, including the main character himself.

Title 13 is a dive into a depraved and yet likeable mind more than it is a mystery. While the missing documents are always a looming concern, the novel is more a depiction of a troubled mind than a troubled governmental agency. We follow Heald through the city of Chicago and to his home in Detroit, painting a picture of a slow-moving, Midwestern region mostly devoid of the technological annoyances that dog us today. The story is not a thriller in which there is a prominent and clean conclusion; it is more satisfying than that. Instead, we follow a government employee who doesn’t trust the agency and yet more importantly, doesn’t trust himself.

Ferro has crafted a novel with a setting that seems separate from modern day technology; a setting that feels sadly accurate for a big and unwieldy government agency working with outdated tools. Ferro uses vivid and compelling descriptions; he describes a futon as being “as comfortable as a sack of broken hammers;” of his protagonist who is suffering through a movie he hates in an effort to impress a girl, Ferro writes simply, “He was horny, annoyed and wanted to throw up.” On the demise of Detroit, Ferro writes, “These giant pillars of concrete and metal now jutted high like extended index fingers from broken and casted hands, pointing toward something they would never touch.”

In the end, the novel is less about the missing documents and more about what is missing for Heald, and I like it that way. The reader is left feeling less concerned about the documents and more concerned with Heald, who seems to have lost all control. But even though Heald is a pessimist, the reader gets a sense in the end that there is hope for change in his future and that is a satisfying conclusion. I would especially recommend TITLE 13 to those who enjoy a tormented narrator.


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