Off The Grid

Off The Grid   by C.J. Box

This is yet another in the Joe Pickett/Nate Romanowski series and is more of the same fare, which is to say, good enough stuff in its own way.

In Off The Grid, we find Nate (former Special Ops) still on the run from the Feds, at least that is until they find him and ‘invite’ him to work for them in investigating the behaviour of another Master Falconer, Ibby (Muhammad Ibraaheem), who has relocated under suspicious circumstances to the Red Desert wilderness in Wyoming. Ibby is the son of the Saudi Ambassador to the US who became a journalist, before disappearing off the grid, like Nate.

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The Feds, compromising a secretive organisation who operate mostly off the books, need to know what Ibby is up to. It’s unfortunate for Nate that the G-men chose him, and their threats leave him with little apparent choice. It’s a good thing too, for Ibby has gotten himself in over his head as he keeps company with some serious bad Arab – or should that be A-rab – dudes.

I have always enjoyed books by C.J. Box. His settings are glorious and I have written before about the beauty of the countryside that he describes and how it would entice me to live there. The author’s depictions of the animals and the people who reside in such isolated areas is vivid. It’s clear that Box greatly appreciates the raw and uncompromising glory of Wyoming.

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(Adobe Town in the Red Desert, Wyoming)

The one thing Box tended to steer clear of was commentary on international politics. Nate, as a former soldier, is portrayed as a patriot, and Joe Pickett, who is a Fish and Game Warden, is a Federal employee who has little time for the bureaucracy of those who staff it. Yet neither man was ever shown as a hardline ‘USA is the greatest nation in the world’ type of guy.

John Sandford adopts a similar approach to both domestic and foreign politics. His central characters are not usually bogged down by polarity.

Sadly, in Off The Grid, Box has deviated strongly from his previous position. As you might have figured, Ibby is a Muslim. He is suspected of being engaged in terrorism against the US – as opposed to the terrorism that is perpetrated on behalf of the US. His associates are from Yemen and Iraq. You starting to get the picture?

This book was published in 2016, which is 15 years after the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. Yet we still have certain US authors engaging in Arab-bashing and a degree of Islamophobia. It is disconcerting to discover that educated citizens of the most powerful military nation on our planet still feel the need to cast those from the Middle East in the role of bogeyman. It’s usually the Arabs, Persians or North Koreans. How fucking simplistic can you get?

In Off The Grid, Joe Pickett is recruited by the Fed-hating Governor Rulon to try to find out what the government is up to in the Red Desert. Joe has no idea that his good friend, Nate, is involved. And so it is that the paths of the two good friends crosses in the dry and inhospitable desert of Wyoming.

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The plot that they uncover is plausible enough, but not for a group of Jihadis to have become involved in. The story-line is, in some ways, a commentary and criticism on our over-reliance on modern technology and computers in particular. In this I concur. Our societies are vulnerable to manipulation and totalitarianism because of our nonchalant attitude to our personal information. Information is power and today governments have access to ever more of ours. Rebel Voice has stated that it is a recipe for disaster.

That said, as much as I agree with the premise of Off The Grid, I do not appreciate the fact that it is Arabs who have, yet again, been vilified. It is an unfortunate trend that lends itself to racism, sectarianism and more generalized bigotry. I had hoped that C.J. Box was beyond all that but it appears that I was wrong.

The plot of this book is strong if one can ignore the stereotypical demonizing of a people. Although Box does throw in little lines about how Islam is a peaceful religion, and Ibby is shown as a good guy, the underlying message is still one which is not favourable to the World of Islam. I say this as an atheist.

For my money, Box has tainted his copybook with this offering. The US has enough criminals in its own citizenry that it can avoid constantly trotting out the usual suspects in either literature or the movie industry. Casting Muslims as the bad guys is not going to help solve the problems of the world. Stopping the exploitation of Islamic nations and their people just might.

I enjoyed Off The Grid up to a point. I had to set the stereotypes aside. I enjoyed the scenery, as I always do with C.J. Box. Perhaps, though, its time he moved on with his simplistic view of who is causing the problems in our world and who constitutes the greatest threat to the people of the USA. I will be happy to tell Box that he need look no further than the US Federal Government and the corporations that ultimately control it. Democracy? Fuck off. It’s a plutocracy and a kleptocracy, and it is oppressing the citizens of the United States more than any Arab or Russian or Korean ever could.

C.J. Box, to give him some credit, does touch upon these issues, but then falls back on the regular whipping boys. I just wonder if his publisher asked him to go down this path so that they could sell more books. Either way, it’s a poor way to make a living. Not that I think C.J. Box gives a damn about my opinions one way or the other.

Anyhow, I am disappointed at these aspects of Off The Grid. It had the potential to be so much better. It is still very well written and plotted out, but fails for me for the reasons given.

Nate and Pickett kick ass, and save the day as they always do. The bad guys remain bad. The good guys are good. The animals are wondering what the fuck all the crazy humans are doing. Yadda. Yadda. Yadda. I wonder when Box will kill Nate off, or cause Joe Pickett to question his sexuality so much that he discovers that he is transgender and undergoes surgery to remove his dick and balls. Now that would be unexpected.

However, if the literature of the US continues to get hung up on those who are from the Middle East then I will have to concentrate more on reading English authors, but not Lee Child as he seems to have caught the Arab-bashing bug from living in New England. 15 years is not a long time, but it is long enough to have calmed down and gained a healthy perspective upon events from that terrible time in New York.

C.J Box lives in Wyoming where I expect few Middle Eastern people venture. Perhaps that’s why Box has to bring them to him, the better for his heroes to excel at being the type of good guys that too many readers of American novels expect. It’s all about the money…

One thing’s for sure, hiding in Wyoming and writing stories about evil Muslims is not going to help the innocent people of the US in the long-run. It merely stirs the pot a little more and that helps no one but those who reap huge profits from the military-industrial complex. Bet they loved this book.

Sult scale rating: 5 out of 10. The 5 is for the standard of writing and the setting only. I hope that the next in the series is much better.