Big Time: A Novel

Image of Big Time: A Novel
Release Date: 
March 5, 2024
Mulholland Books
Reviewed by: 

“A rivulet of authentic human grit runs through the core of Winters’ novels, with his characters’ struggles to just get by as important as any far-fetched plot twist.”

Ben H. Winters is a master of the genre mix-and-match. Merging thriller and mystery mechanics with far-out what-if scenarios, he winks at the usual conventions even as he honors them, from an alternate-reality America where slavery still exists (Underground Airlines) to a detective noir trilogy (The Last Policeman series) that’s set just prior to the end of the world. But even when things get surreal, a rivulet of authentic human grit runs through the core of Winters’ novels, with his underdog characters’ struggles to just get by carrying as much weight as any far-fetched plot twist.

Winters’ Big Time is a companion piece of sorts to his The Quiet Boy, as both novels center on a puzzling hospital patient with a whopper of a secret. In Big Time’s case, the patient is a woman who calls herself Allie but might also be a woman named Ana. After a harrowing abduction and escape, Allie/Ana’s mind is scrambled, with memories from two separate realities jockeying for control. Her case soon catches the attention of Grace, a divorced, put-upon FDA medical device inspector, when Grace finds a portacath in Allie/Ana’s X-ray that shouldn’t exist—at least, not in Grace’s universe.

From there, a cat-and-mouse game plays out on parallel tracks, as Grace’s shambling investigation leads her toward the heart of a medical and corporate conspiracy, while Allie/Ana’s search for the truth takes her into her past, even as a beautiful and very ticked-off assassin named Desiree closes in.

Suffice to say that the title of Big Time is a double entendre, as time itself is revealed to have physical as well as intangible properties. Touching on the metaphysical while keeping itself rooted in the quotidian, the plot may flirt with outrageous ideas, but the emotions at the center of it all—grief at the loss of a child; Grace’s half-grumpy, half-affectionate interactions with her rebellious non-binary offspring—are as real as it gets.

Winters’ narrative sweep is as slick as ever as he flits back and forth between domestic comedy, sci-fi intrigue, and straight suspense. Frumpy, overweight, and decidedly unheroic—a climactic moment finds her stuck in traffic and in dire need of a pee—Grace makes for an appealing hangdog hero, while Allie/Ana carries the weight of the story’s implications, as her quest to unlock her memory opens up thorny questions about identity, free will, and the nature of time (of course).

Big Time is more modest than Winters’ other recent novels, which mostly works to its benefit. On the plus side, Winters’ plotting is sharper than usual; his loser heroes remain likable; and as the novel works itself into a slow burn (including a ticking fuse, appropriately enough), his plain-spoken, direct prose keeps the action tethered.

Keeping an even balance between its two protagonists, the novel finds wry humor in juxtaposing the exasperation of Grace’s work and home life with Allie/Ana’s constant state of peril. On the other hand, those accustomed to the more expansive, truly whacked-out imaginings of Winters’ previous works might find Big Time a bit mundane, the storytelling more geared toward confrontations and cliffhangers than mind-blowing revelations.

Big Time concludes, as noir stories usually do, with mysteries solved via a final shootout. If the ultimate resolution to Ana/Allie’s identity isn’t as cathartic as it could have been, it does lead to a suitably cynical denouement that posits a future in which rich evildoers gain yet another advantage over poor innocents, and what could be more noir than that? In Winters’ fatalistic, topsy-turvy universe of possibilities, the bitter taste of moral decay lurks behind every plot twist, and it’s that sour kick of reality that supplies zest to Big Time.