The Intern’s Handbook – A Book Review

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I started my career at my current company as an intern; back when I was in graduate school, I was looking for summer employment to supplement my TA responsibilities during the school year. I had been grading state standardized exams – a job that I found mind numbing and more than a little depressing – when a colleague of mine mentioned that the place where he worked was looking for interns. Anxious to do something different, I interviewed for what I thought would be a three month gig. That was thirteen years ago. I just never left. I continued with my paid internship the rest of my tenure as a grad student and then when I decided to opt out of completing my Ph.D., my (now former) boss offered me a full-time job to stay on. The rest, as they say, is history.

I’ve graduated from being the intern to supervising interns; over the years I’ve had plenty of student assistants come through my office. Most have been great, with the occasional clunker in the bunch. I’d like to think that because I was an intern that makes me a better supervisor. I’ve walked a mile in their shoes, so to speak. I always try to treat them with respect and get to know then as people, realizing that for most of them this is just a job and they plan to move on to bigger and better things elsewhere. I’ve never asked them to get me coffee, unless they offered because they were already stopping at Dunkin Donuts and more often than not, I would pay for their coffee as well. Whether they know it or not, I’m definitely an advocate for them with the rest of the staff and am mindful of how things affect them – for example, interns don’t get paid when they aren’t in the office, so I always offer my students the option of making up some hours when a holiday falls on their normal work day. A forced unpaid day of work can have a big impact. I’ve generally had a really good relationship with our interns and have stayed in touch with the vast majority of them after they have graduated and entered the real world. I must be doing something right, since it was our interns that masterminded the covert operation to have a bobblehead of me created one year for Christmas. A very sweet gesture.

So when I heard about a book whose central premise is that there is a company that deploys assassins disguised as interns, I knew that I had to check it out. Not only could I sympathize with the idea that interns are so anonymous that they would be perfect assassins, but I could use the book to tease my current and former interns about their alleged secret double lives. There are a few previous interns where the revelation that they were contract killers wouldn’t surprise me that much – and I mean that in the best possible way.

The idea behind The Intern’s Handbook is definitely an innovative and creative one. The shadowy company HR, Inc. provides interns to some of the biggest companies, but actually serves as a front for deploying young hitmen (and hitwomen) to assassinate people for clients. Trained from a very young age and often plucked from the foster care system, the assassins are taught to kill their targets to make it look like known enemies of the victim. As interns, they are faceless drones that are trusted with unparalleled access and opportunities, yet no one can remember their names. This provides them the perfect cover for their missions; there is no better protection for an assassin than anonymity. The book is written from the point of view of John Lago, a lifer at HR, Inc. who is about to retire from the contract killing game and wants to provide some helpful hints for the “interns” that will follow in his footsteps in the company. The focus of the book is on his last job, with rules for surviving the job and supplemental material from an FBI investigation of Lago peppered throughout.

While The Intern’s Handbook is a fun read, unfortunately the innovation of the story isn’t met with superior execution. It is clear after reading this book that first time novelist Shane Kuhn made his bones as a screenwriter for action films. The story is written in a way that is basic and not all that sophisticated; there isn’t a lot of depth to any of these characters and he has a penchant for dropping in pop culture references and metaphors that feel forced, not organic. Kuhn has a tendency to rush through things to get to the action, which is too bad because I thought that there could have been some interesting world building here or at least some patience in letting the story breathe. There was room to make some more interesting commentary on the role of interns or the competitiveness of the workplace, but instead Kuhn glosses over much of that to get back to the violence and action. The Intern’s Handbook reads a lot more like a screenplay, so it isn’t wholly surprising that the book is already in development to be adapted to a film starring Dave Franco. The fact that the book begins with some FBI briefing notes ultimately takes some of the urgency out of the story; if the reader knows from the get go that the FBI is still looking for Lago and that what we are reading is a handbook that he wrote, there isn’t much question of his ultimate survival. That lowers the stakes a bit; if our hero is presumably not in peril or if we know that he gets out of some dire situations, the suspense is minimized.

Despite its shortcomings, The Intern’s Handbook definitely has its moments. Behind some of the more stilted or simplistic dialogue lurks some dark humor and unexpected plot twists. I was pretty sure that I knew where the story was going, but there were just enough pivots in the narrative that the story did not ultimately wind up where I thought it would. The time that Kuhn does spend on the world of the interns is pretty accurate and there is no denying that the author has a brain for what makes an interesting action sequence. If the end goal was to write a book that would make an interesting movie, Kuhn definitely succeeded. While The Intern’s Handbook might not have quite lived up to my hopes for the premise, it was a quick and fairly entertaining read. The timing of the release is pretty perfect, as I could see this being a good summer read while lounging out on the beach. It has a novel enough concept to hold the reader’s attention, but is simplistic enough that it doesn’t have complicated plots or multiple characters to keep track of. Some books are a lot of work, but The Intern’s Handbook is just a fun ride. It’s the literary equivalent of a summer blockbuster – high concept but simplistic execution where a lot of things blow up and people are killed. I would have preferred a story that focused a bit more on plot and characters, but for what it was it wasn’t a bad read. I finished it in two days, which was a selling point since I’ve been mired in trying to get through the Game of Thrones book series; there is something to be said a story that doesn’t take itself too seriously and that wraps itself up in a timely and efficient manner. The Intern’s Handbook won’t win any literary awards, but it is imaginative and will probably make you look at interns a little differently. At the bare minimum, it might convince some supervisors to actually learn some interns’ names. In my book, that’s a win.

The Intern’s Handbook was released April 2014; the film adaptation is still in development.

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