Wayward Pines Trilogy reviews: Ethan Burke, the human punching bag

I feel like the entire first book of Blake Crouch’s Wayward Pines trilogy is meant to establish that Ethan Burke is a tough dude. Seriously, Ethan spends the entire book either being drugged, beaten up, poked, prodded, and eviscerated for almost the entire thing all in order to establish him as a tough as nails kind of guy.

I recently spent some time with the first book and gave it a good read making stops here and there to take some notes. There’s definitely some good stuff in here and it made me a bit more excited to see the adaptation being released on Fox in May this year.

There are spoilers ahead, so if you’re looking to stay unaware for when the series airs I’d keep away from this review. However, Wayward Pines is a pretty interesting place with Crouch as a the mastermind pulling all the strings.

***

At the start of the book, Ethan Burke, a Secret Service agent, wakes up near a river with a bad concussion and little to no memory of who or where he is. All he has is a faint recollection of the name “Mack” and that it the name means trouble. Having spent the better part of a day stumbling around and winding up on a resident of Wayward Pines’s doorstep, he ends up falling unsconscious and waking up in hospital where he recovers a good portion of his identity.

Meeting Pam, a nurse, he’s given a lay of the land and learns that once he sees the doctor he should be able to contact the town’s sheriff. From there, he can continue his investigation into finding out what’s happened to two agents who went missing somewhere inside the town.

Now this is where things start to get a little hazy with Ethan’s character. As a member of the Secret Service, shouldn’t he be protecting Barack Obama or something? It’s a question asked of him by more than one character and there’s some well placed scrutiny there over his presence in Wayward Pines.

Without a badge, gun, wallet, or really anything who’s to say he really is a secret service agent? He on the lookout for two agents and one of them he has a bit of a past with too, so there is, perhaps, a little more to his journey to this town.

Fed up with waiting for the doctor, Ethan escapes the hospital and manages to stumble his way across town to a small bar. There he meets a young waitress named Beverly who gives him a pretty thin-tasting pint of beer and a really good burger. She also gives him some directions that if he gets into trouble in the town he should come to her house.

The next day, Ethan stumbles his way over to her house only to find the rotted remains of Agent William Evans, one of the two agents who went missing.

He stumbles his way to Wayward Pines’s sheriff office and meets Arnold Pope. They butt heads in the office. Pope questions Burke about his identity and why he thinks he can just boss him around in his own office. It’s a bit confrontation and he leaves fuming, and right when the story is getting good… we’re whisked away to Seattle.

I really don’t get why authors do this. Right in the middle of something big, we’re made to change gears and have to follow Theresa Burke, his wife, on some journey with her friends to mourn the loss of Ethan on some mountainside. The story needed this as a way to slow the pace of Ethan’s sections as they get pretty heated, but the change when we meet Theresa and her son, is a little jarring.

We learn that, in her time, it’s been almost 15 months since Ethan was last seen or heard from. The Secret Service has done their investigations into his disappearance and have even managed to find the car he was driving, but there’s no trace of him or the other agents. Theresa is left alone with her son, a mortgage, and a bottle of vodka. This is also when we meet Ethan’s boss, Hassler, who sent him out on this mission in the first place.

Hassler expresses the same concern for Ethan and hopes they can get to the bottom of this mystery. However, that night a knock at the door wakes up Theresa and she meets a mysterious stranger who has a Polaroid of Ethan. He says that he can reunite the family.

What’s annoying, other than that he has specifically shows her a Polaroid, is that Theresa in a moment of weakness thinks about going along with the guy’s plan. The plan: he can reunited the family, but she has to give everything up. She’s a freaking paralegal with a steady job, a large family, friends, and a son, yet her first reaction isn’t to bring the guy into the house, trap him inside of a closet, call Hassler, and have this guy interrogated. She’s then drugged and taken away.

There’s just too much added complexity with her character shoved into the story with so little development development. She’s portrayed as being weak and every conversation surrounds Ethan, Ethan, Ethan. This kidnapping and foreshadowing also makes her sudden appearance in Wayward Pines lose all of the “OH MY GOD” it could have had if it was left as a mystery.

Back to Ethan…

Back in town, Ethan’s frustrated over his inability to contact his family, find an Internet connection, or get the sheriff to take the investigation into William’s death seriously. On a bit of a whim, Ethan decides to steal a car and ventures off into the night. On the outskirts of Wayward Pines, he sees the town’s sign with its Truman Show-like motto of, “Where Paradise is Home”. He ventures off into the woods only to be chased by some horrible monster and is then confronted by Pope.

A few minutes later, he’s sitting in an interrogation room with an eyelid swollen shut from being hit with the butt of a gun. He tries to escape and then the human excrement really hits the fan. He gets the pulp kicked out of him by Pope and is placed back in hospital under the care of the now sociopathic Nurse Pam who sticks him with a needle.

They’re going to be putting him onto the operating table to make all of the pain go away. Suddenly, Beverly, the waitress, appears and whisks him off into the night where he falls into sweet unconsciousness due to the injection from Nurse Pam.

Down in a crypt, she reveals that yes there’s something weird going on in Wayward Pines. On a trip to the town in 1985, Beverly was in a car accident and woke up with amnesia. She was told that she was a bartender in Wayward Pines and took on the role.

It was only a few weeks later did she start to regain her memories of her past life; however, when you’re in Wayward Pines you don’t talk about the past, politics, or pop culture. It’s understandable that she’s startled when it turns out Ethan is from 2012 and she starts to question just how deep the mystery goes in the town.

While unconscious, Beverly also took out a small monitoring chip from Ethan’s leg, which explains why Pope was always able to find him. And then the phones start to ring. According to Beverly, when someone goes rogue in the town all of the citizens are called upon to find and kill the person in a kind of monkey-like fashion. Normal men and women who wouldn’t hurt a fly in real life dress up in weird costumes and act like violent weirdos with Pope acting as some shaman urging them on.

Ethan and Beverly dash off into the night, but get separated. Ethan manages to sneak into some apartment where he kills some guy in a big yellow coat and steals enough rest, food, and clothes to make a break for it. He also witnesses the town’s ritual execution of Beverly with a man dressed in a Santa outfit hitting her with a bat and some women in a black bikini killing her with an axe. Anyway, out in the woods Ethan’s all alone, but a howl goes up and he finds himself running for his life from some kind of translucent humanoid creature.

Making for the mountains, he dispatches one of the creatures and soon finds four more chasing him. With their huge claws, glittering teeth, and disturbing howls they’re really unlike anything else he’s ever seen. Soon enough, he’s killed all of them also proving that he’s some kind of super human punching bag having his stomach sliced open and yet still able to move. High up on a cliff, he finds a ventilation shaft and crawls through it.

During moments like these, Ethan’s mind delves back into the past and to The Battle of Falluja, which he apparently took part in. There he piloted a Blackhawk Helicopter and was captured by insurgents. They threatened to kill him and even subjected him to the Chinese torture of a thousand cuts. I won’t tell you the name because of morbid curiosity you’re like to look it up, but your lunch won’t be happy that you did. Ethan powers through his memories and ends up finding a high-tech scientific facility on the other end.

There he meets a psychiatrist who evaluated him in town and is revealed to be David Pilcher, the genius behind the creation of Wayward Pines. Apparently, it’s 1,500 years in the future and the small town is all that’s left of human civilization. Back in the 1970’s, Pilcher perfected a way to cryogenically freeze people and was able to reawaken members of the population in the small town. There he’s been able to create a kind of order using the integration method of bopping them on the head, saying they have amnesia, and telling them there’s nothing wrong and to go about their day.

Ethan Burke is now, apparently, on his third attempt at integration. As Pilcher explains, he had be awoken in the past only to attempt the same escape he did just now once and then on a second attempt try to escape with his family in tow. Wait, his family is alive and in the town? Understandably surprised, Ethan is taken on a small journey to the ancient remains of Boise with a stitched up Arnold Pope and Nurse Pam who turn out to be some kind of security personnel.

On the ground, Ethan is given two choices: work with Pilcher and help rule the town or take your chances with the weird humanoid animals. As the chopper fires back up, Pope and Pam are desperately trying to protect the helicopter. With most of the crew safely aboard, the doc closes the door before Pope can board and he’s ripped to shreds. Ethan is the new sheriff in town and according to the doctor there are some insurgents in Wayward Pines who are trying to take over. It’s now his job to find them.

***

And that is a very quick and not very thorough look at the first book of the Wayward Pines trilogy. The book really was a page turner and I can definitely see why they’re choosing to make it into a television show. At the end of the book, Clark goes into a bit of detail into the book’s inspirations that include Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure, and the X-Files, so I think there’s also a bit of conspiratorial timing going on here with two out of those three shows making returns to televisions.

Throughout the first book we see Ethan go through quite a bit, but I wouldn’t exactly say that his character grows. He certainly faces a fair amount of pain both physical and psychological, but the constant tug of war he goes through with his post-traumatic stress disorder can make his character feel a bit disjointed. We’re constantly being given proof of just how tough he is and I think the book does a good enough job establishing that, but to be “the best service agent” Hassler ever had there’s got to be a bit more to a strong protagonist than just brawn.

Ethan is the kind of person who can survive on instinct alone, but when put up against someone a bit smarter and a little more witty I don’t think his approach of “try to punch” and/or “throw a rock at it” would work. As well, his complacency when it comes to going along with the grand lie of Wayward Pines seems completely counter to his character, but that’s why there’s three books in the series.

With the world explained by Pilcher, Wayward Pines’s setting straddles the borders of science and post-apocalyptic fiction. The human world has wasted away and what remains must attempt to survive with a human punching bag as their faithful protector. It’s the kind of story that really resonates with a reader like me, but we’ll have to see how it develops. Will the town remain ignorant to humanity’s fate? Will the fences remain in place? Do they have nachos at the bar?

I’m pretty excited to see how the show executes the first season. I’ll be going into it a bit more informed than someone who hasn’t read the first books so admittedly it might not be as fun as staying unexposed to the series. I will also be bringing two more reviews of the other books, so stay tuned.

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3 thoughts on “Wayward Pines Trilogy reviews: Ethan Burke, the human punching bag

  1. This isn’t a review. It’s a blow-by-blow recap of the first book. Geez, I guess you’ve never opened up the New York Times newspaper or a magazine and read an actual book review.

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