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If only Steve McQueen were still alive

With Steve McQueen dead since 1980, who among today’s actors could possible play a character seemingly created with McQueen – or perhaps a successor –in mind?

Nicholas Sparks apparently didn’t stop to worry about casting the inevitable movie of “See Me,” his violent, romantic, car-chase-happy tale set in the soft autumn air of the North Carolina shore. He just went ahead with a set of charming characters and put them into motion and along a path of personal transformation.

The protagonist, Colin Hancock, has a life strikingly like McQueen’s but minus McQueen’s reform school years. Colin goes from bad boy to cool dude as his romantic encounter blossoms with the accomplished, Latin Maria Sanchez, a lawyer marked for revenge by – well, that’s the central puzzle. The pace never slows and is punctuated with enough fights and chases to please the most blase McQueen fan.

Colin eventually learns to channel the energy from his rage into Mixed Martial Arts, and Sparks describes every kick and punch with relish.

The sound of bones breaking in Colin’s hand as he desperately tries to rescue Maria’s younger sister from a burning warehouse is one memorable element. His rigid discipline nearly fails during the final battle with a really bad psychopath. As the fire chases him across the floor, “He could handle pain; he knew how to harness it, and tried to draw on it, but his hand would no longer grip.” Sheer willpower has its limits. So he tries to reach the helpless Serena by crawling on his forearms and – is thwarted every which way.

Anyone who has tried to describe a fight, wrestling match or even other sports knows the challenge of making each move different enough from the others to keep a bored reader from just turning the page.

Car chases pose similar challenges: turn here, veer there, change lanes – Sparks’ finesse with narrative prose keeps the moves fresh. And he doesn’t stop at just one chase.

Colin’s struggles seem to begin with an ADHD diagnosis. School is a struggle: after five more expulsions and five military schools, he is an angry and violent young man with no plans for his life and no interest in finding any. Seven bad years follow, as he avoids his parents trying to make small talk “while memories of the past filled the air between them like a poisonous gas.”

Eventually he gets to college and is studying to become a third-grade teacher when he stumbles into the threats and trouble forming around Maria Sanchez. Her sister Serena is in one of his classes.

Plenty of characters fill out the constantly changing plot. A sidekick couple, Evan and Lily, offset with their preppiness Colin’s tough-guy persona and Maria’s Mexican temperament, which Sparks could have toned down a bit. He does temper the squeaky-clean Sanchez family as her uncles and cousins casually decide to visit when the psychotic killer is expected to make a move at the house. The slightest hint of menace in their presence shows Sparks’ talent for ambiguity.

The possible movie script can almost write itself, given Sparks’ thoroughness here.

His style slips once or twice. The book would not have lost any vigor had he edited out a couple of romance-type phrases. And what could “(Maria’s) obvious fear made something coil in him” mean?

Sparks pours energy into the Sanchez family. Colin’s turning point from anomie to purpose occurs when, “For the first time in a long while, he considered calling his parents. He wasn’t sure why the urge struck him but he assumed it had something to do with the way Maria talked about her parents.” The motorcycle racing and cage fighting will have lower priority for him as family life looms.

Sparks harks back in small ways to 1950s fiction. In the venerable “Seventeenth Summer,” for example, one of the beau’s attractions is that he smells like Ivory soap, over and over. In 2015, Colin smells “like salt and wind, clean and fresh.”

Sparks will turn 50 this year, having sold more than 100 million books. If “See Me” is not immortal, it likely will continue to be popular, in the tradition of his “Message in a Bottle,” “The Notebook” and a slew of other novels. Ten have been made into movies.

Readers looking for a fast-moving story and attractive protagonists who struggle against mindless evil find it here.

If only Steve McQueen were available, when – and if–the movie is made.

Stephanie Shapiro is a former News writer and editor.

See Me

By Nicholas Sparks

Grand Central

486 pages, $27