You wake up and look in the mirror and somebody else's face is staring back at you. Or you walk into your house, but the furniture is not familiar, and your formerly loving spouse, with not a clue as to who you might be, grabs for the phone to call the cops. Or you step out the front door, and the moon is bright, the air is sweet, but your neighborhood, your city the entire planet! is absolutely empty or, worse yet, populated by monsters. Question is, what do you do when positively everything familiar turns incomprehensible, or everyone, for no reason at all, starts chasing you?
In real life, you'd probably curl up into a ball and start drooling, but in the world of popular fiction, where the base stuff of cringing nightmares is forever being transmuted into the solid gold of heroic daydreams, you'd simply take a deep breath, exercise ingenuity, and survive you rugged individual, you. And due in large part to the old Twilight Zone, the more isolating and uncanny the situation, the stronger its vicarious buzz. Which is why Joseph R. Garber's Vertical Run, despite an awkward structure, some clunky prose, and a preposterous finale, is one of the best thrillers to come along in ages. I mean, how's this for a premise? You go to work one morning, and everyone there, from your boss on down, starts shooting at you.
Though described as being an ''ordinary, ordinary guy,'' David Elliot, executive vice president of the New York City-based Senterex Corporation, is hardly that. At 47, he's still in enviable shape, and as soon as the going gets tough, he can, and most assuredly does, rely on his Vietnam-era Special Forces training to keep him dodging bullets, laying booby traps, concocting explosives, and swinging gracefully from cables. (Think Rambo in Bally loafers and wearing a Rolex watch, or Die Hard's John McClane with an MBA.)
Trapped inside a ''corporate castle'' at the corner of 50th Street and Park Avenue, Elliot is crafty enough to keep himself temporarily alive but can't begin to imagine why everyone in the building, including a small, vicious army of mercenaries, wants him dead. And not just dead, but dissolved in an acid bath. ''What have I seen?'' he keeps wondering. ''What have I heard? What do I know?'' (Since I'm no spoiler, I'm not saying but you might ask yourself why our hero happens to be wearing a gauze pad taped around his left palm. And that's the only hint you'll get from me.)
Interspersed throughout the accelerating game of corporate-suite hide-and-seek are extended flashbacks to Elliot's war experiences, which turn out to be linked in only the most tenuous way to his current predicament. With a lot of that fat trimmed off, and with a climax that didn't depend on Elliot's being assisted by the unlikeliest of allies (nope, no more hints), Vertical Run could've been a genuine classic. As it is, it's a flawed, boisterous, and roguishly entertaining shoot-'em-up. Soon, of course, to be a noisy motion picture. A-