I see three challenges for any Christmas book:
- Find an original angle that's grounded in something real but allows reality to bend for Christmas
- Evoke the spirit of Christmas without being too saccharine
- Make me care about the people as people rather than as avatars for Christmas messages
Allen Russell's "St. Nick" manages to pass all three tests. He managed to make me laugh at bad Christmas jokes that I hadn't heard in a long time and cry at the unfairness of a universe in which children get cancer.
"St. Nick", tells the story of Nick Pappas, a San Deigo cop who has been through a recent trauma that has him suspended from the police force. It's Thanksgiving and he's living alone in a shoddy apartment and seriously contemplating eating his gun. He gives himself a reprieve to help his former partner catch some muggers at the shopping mall he runs security for. To catch the muggers, he goes undercover as Santa.
From there, Nick's life gets taken over by the responsibilities that come with the new uniform he's wearing. It brings him into contact with a terminally sick boy with an impossible Christmas wish and sends him searching for Laura, a little girl whose letter to Santa is so moving that Nick ends up starting a search to find her and help her.
Along the way, he builds relationships with a relentlessly cheerful Head Elf, a nurse in the Pediatric Oncology ward and a woman TV reporter who films a segment from his lap and the quarterback from the San Diego Football team.
Throughout, Nick remains the cop he always was. He never loses touch with reality but he does allow himself to re-engage with hope and drives himself to do the right thing for children who need him.
This is an engaging read, with a great pace, a good mix of laughter and tears, a plot that surprises but remains believable and a spirit of Christmas that is about finding the hope and the love to push through the depression and the pain that life offers us. I think it's a perfect December read.
"St. Nick" was my first Alan Russell book. Looking at his bibliography, it seems that he writes all kinds of fiction but always starts by imagining a real person in a real situation.
In this interview, "True Confessions Of St. Nick", he explains how he went about writing "St. Nick", including the time he spent working as a Santa in San Diego.