Book review: ‘The Last Days of Video’

Also from 2015, a book by a regional author.

The dilemma for Waring Wax is familiar. He owns a business wasting away at a glacial pace. It fact, the patient is deteriorating at such an excruciatingly slow speed that it only becomes obvious to those working there when shutting down is imminent and unavoidable.

But the signs, as always, were there all along.

What to do or where to turn, then, for Wax, whose video rental enterprise under normal circumstances might be seen as a community treasure generating  loads of nostalgic goodwill among its satisfied yet saddened patrons? Therein lies the rub. Wax has squandered whatever capital his quaint shop could have generated in the college town it calls home largely because he’s alienated nearly everyone with whom he’s come in contact for a decade. What’s more, he’s done so intentionally and with no small amount of glee.

This sets up an almost no-win scenario for Wax and his loosely knit band of dubiously loyal and offbeat employees. Can they survive the inevitable?

This is the premise of “The Last Days of Video,” a promising first novel by Jeremy Hawkins, a graduate of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington masters writing program  who is now a teacher at the Carrboro Arts Center and operator of an independent bookstore in Chapel Hill. Set in 2007, at about the time big box behemoths like Blockbuster began swallowing mom and pop video stores, “The Last Days of Video” echoes well-traveled territory. Indeed, it would be relatively simple to fill in “The Last Days of (blank)” with any number of once thriving independent businesses doomed by corporate incursion or rendered anachronisms by time. Think record stores. Think newspapers. And, yes, think books.

Hawkins obviously knows the territory — both inside and out. The setting is a fictional college town in North Carolina called West Appleton. But it has enough local geographic references to clearly mark the site as Chapel Hill-Carrboro (Weaver Street Market, anyone?). He enhances this healthy dose of background with an entertaining and often hilarious recall of movies, movie history and pop culture fueled by movies. That foundation augments a host of quirky characters through a maze that includes a self-help cult, a born-again corporation and a Hollywood director with North Carolina ties who may be involved in an ongoing conversation with the late film director Alfred Hitchcock.

In the middle of it all is Wax, a thoroughly unsympathetic character increasingly common in modern fiction. American authors of comic novels for more than a decade have relied upon protagonists that are cantankerous and snarky to the point of truculence. They either succeed in spite of themselves or fail spectacularly — usually clueless as to their own roles in this demise.

Hawkins makes Wax more self-aware than most in this genre. He’s keenly aware of his shortcomings but feels helpless to improve himself or has no interest in doing so. Wax remains oddly devoted to his sad enterprise and his assistant, Alaura Eden, the manager who wants desperately to save the store but even she’s not sure why.

A Blockbuster store’s emergence coupled with a massive real estate development pose additional threats to Wax’s video world. In the backdrop, a movie is being filmed in the town, directed by a childhood friend of Alaura’s.

Hawkins ties all these ends together neatly while delivering an entertaining tale that could also serve as a guide to pop culture for the emerging century. The unspoken irony, of course, is that Blockbuster, the big-box threat to Wax’s small video store, is itself living on borrowed time when the novel is set. Netflix and other internet-based services would end video store rental in less than 10 years.

Time and change, it seems, swallows the weak and the strong.


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