Oklahoman review: ‘Black Mad Wheel’ by Josh Malerman

“Black Mad Wheel” by Josh Malerman (HarperCollins Publishers, 304 pages, in stores) Can music translate into text? Can a novel sing? If any novel can, it is “Black Mad Wheel” by Josh Malerman, who is also lead singer for the rock band the High Strung. The time the novel takes place is the late 1950s. A music group known as the Danes has been together since World War II, when they were part of a military band. Now they are rock-n-rollers with three hit songs under their belts, getting hungry for more but not ready to put in the effort. One day, they are invited to serve their country one more time, for a tidy payment of $100,000 each. All they have to do is go to the Namib Desert in the southern part of Africa and investigate the origin of a strange sound that already has driven two army patrols crazy, rendered a nuclear weapon useless and caused firearms to become no more than metal toys. In counterpoint with the melody spun by this story of adventure and, ultimately, horror, are events that take place more than six months later, when the lead singer of the Danes, Phillip Tonka, awakens in a hospital room, unable to move. Every bone in his body has been broken, and somehow, some way, he not only has managed to survive this physical devastation, but has awakened after a six-month coma that no one believed he would escape. Officials want to know what Phillip saw in the desert. They want to know what could have broken every bone in his body. They want to know why he survived, and why no one else came out of the desert with him. They want to know the secret of the sound. Phillip wants to know what happened to the Danes, his best friends and partners. And he wants to know what secrets the people at this hospital are keeping from him, and why. Chapter by chapter, “Black Mad Wheel” sings first one melody, then the counterpoint, putting Phillip in the desert with its ghosts of ancient soldiers and a goat-headed creature that…

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