First, a confession: I've been a serial intern. Like so many other millennials, I've hopped from internship to internship, my wages often paid more in promises than recognized currency. And though my last internship — here at NPR Books — was one of the best things to happen to me (hi there, Boss!), it's safe to say that I carried into Shane Kuhn's new novel some preconceived notions. Even before I opened The Intern's Handbook, I knew that my review might need some sort of disclaimer. Consider this it.
The Intern's Handbook opens with a disclaimer in its own right — an FBI memorandum that conveniently dispenses with the exposition in one easy page. The book you have before you, it turns out, is an informal manual written by John Lago, the pride of a network of assassins known as Human Resources Inc. Their schtick? Going undercover as interns to kill white-collar titans of the corporate world, chief executives and law firm partners.
Why interns? Bob, the beguiling head of HR Inc., explains: "They may occupy the same space with you for years, but for the life of you, you can never remember their names." Faceless and forgettable, an intern's as invisible as a ninja in fluorescent lights — and, at least in John's case, just as deadly.
But for those of you hoping for biting social commentary in The Intern's Handbook, it might be best to recalibrate your expectations. Though there are occasional echoes of the Occupy movement or Fight Club-esque anti-consumerism, they remain sidebars to the action at hand: giddy, explosive violence. The book bounces from one kill to the next, focused more on the particulars of a broken bone — or the inventive weapon used to make it that way — than it is on the plot or just about any of the characters. The story serves simply to thread outlandish fight scenes together; most of the characters amount to cardboard cutouts caught in a high wind. In other words, we've entered the realm of the summer blockbuster — where logic is thin, laws of physics don't apply, and the target always deserves what's coming to him.
If the novel often tests the limits of what we're willing to believe, at least it never takes itself too seriously. For this we owe a debt of thanks to how Kuhn handles John, our trusty narrator. Among a crowd of caricatures and stereotypes, John's voice stands out, filtering events through an entertaining mix of callousness, profanity and surprising humor. John peppers his confessional with groan-worthy puns, and he's rarely so impressed with a plot point as to miss a chance to play a joke at the reader's expense.
Not surprisingly, Kuhn is at his best when he sticks to the central premise of the book, scraping his hired killer up against the alien world of interning. The picture of internship presented here — much like the rest of the book — doesn't look like anything I've known, but realism, of course, is beside the point. Relish instead John's take on the benefits of building a wardrobe around the color brown, "this pillar of blandness," or the coffee-making kit he carries with him at all times, to serve his bosses coffee so strong it "smells like the victors of the Spanish American war looked." And with good reason, John says: "Forty-four percent of my kills came from my superior coffee-making ability."
It's frustrating, then, that even this clever friction eventually gets shouldered aside by fight scenes and the rigors of inevitable plot twists. The intern gets lost in the intrigue and bloodshed, and the best of the book gets lost along with it. As the bullets fly and the fists find their mark, I couldn't help but think this all would go better with a big screen than with a printed page.
I'll be shocked if the novel doesn't get optioned for film, so I trust I'll soon have the chance to test my guess firsthand — this time, with a bowl of popcorn and an extra-large soda. I'll leave the coffee at home.