After a night of drinking a new batch of home-brewed beer, Charlie Frost wakes up with some rogue thoughts rumbling through his brain. Things like, “Where are my panties?” and “He is creepy.”
It turns out the strange brew has imbued Charlie with the ability to read minds; those thoughts belong to the one-night stand still lingering in his bedroom. And he’s not the only superheroic sot: His roommate Jack can now run faster than a speeding bullet, and their neighbors—Mary Beth (super strength), Harriet (invisibility) and Caroline (flight)—have their own specialties. After each has sufficiently freaked out, they form a superhero team to engage in the small-change battles of a Midwest college town.
Plenty of unconventional superhero stories abound nowadays; the television show Heroes comes to mind, as does last year’s trendy superhero novel, Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible. Superheroes lies somewhere between the schmaltzy earnestness of the former and the thin satire of the latter. Chicagoan Schwartz’s writing is not without its charm, but a tendency toward thesis statements quickly bogs down the narrative: When we find out that pre-med Meredith’s mother died during childbirth, he writes, “Maybe the real reason she wanted to become a doctor was as repayment for her own survival.”
Schwartz puts his debut novel up to the same task as classic comics: to serve as both an exciting adventure story and a political allegory. Unfortunately, the book largely fails on both counts. The kids’ use and misuse of their powers get them into some fairly pedestrian and predictable predicaments. And September 11 is wrongheadedly invoked, when nothing up to that point has prepared the reader or the characters for the gravity of that real-world tragedy. It’s a miscalculation of epic proportions.