The Suburbs of Heaven, Merle Drown
Now Comes Jim ... is the refrain at the end of this wonderful book about a New Hampshire family that can’t get out of its own way. Down on their collective luck and unable to communicate with one another clearly enough to keep from hurting one another, they each grieve in their own way the tragic loss of a young daughter/sister (the one they had the most faith in). This is a tale of a family named Hutchins (not Hutchinson). It is at times hilarious (with dialogue so genuine it spits), shocking, sad and always poignant. The Hutchins family faces the same problems many of us face, except in much larger doses and all at once.
Jim and Pauline are the parents of Gregory, Lisa, Tom and Elizabeth (Elizabeth is the daughter they grieve). Jim’s sister Helen was married to Emory (who may or may not have shoved Helen down the basement stairs and killed her for insurance money). Emory is living high on the hog every since, except he can’t get it up. Pauline favors Emory (and had lied about her sister-in-law’s fall to the police for him) because she misunderstands her husband’s grief and because Emory pays attention to her and can make her laugh. She occasionally dances for him ... in the buff ... but Emory remains impotent and can only watch Pauline the way he can only watch pornos (powerless to do any damage).
One problem is Jim is aware of Pauline’s fondness for Emory and Emory seems to relish rubbing it in Jim’s face. Jim fixes cars for one guy and is a handy man to another more wealthy individual he’s come to love in his own way. Jim is always working and never getting anywhere. The IRS won’t leave him alone, nor will the troubles that seem to plague his family with unending regularity. Gregory, his oldest, has a snake living in his brain and voices telling him to kill his sworn enemies (enemies that include his mother, Emory, his brother Tommy and pretty much anyone who runs afoul of his good intentions). When Gregory spies his mom dancing for Emory, he steals a videotape of a prior performance and the trouble escalates. Tommy is a wildcat and a father who can’t stop himself from getting into it (or into a girl a bit under the lawful age). He’s got a wife (Penny, Jim has nicknamed Squatty Body) he doesn’t seem to mind sharing with his cousin Scooter (Emory’s kid) when he isn’t dangling her out a window by her ankles. Lisa, Jim and Pauline’s daughter, is married to Fesmire (Jim’s descriptions of this guy alone make the book worth its weight in gold), a devout lazy-boned SOB who can justify anything that will keep him from working for a living. There are more characters (BB Eyes—the law; Malcolm—the wealthy guy Jim sometimes works for and gets a few hundred laughs over; Dumont—an over-zealous cop) and a few others who inhabit these raucous suburbs of doom.
Told through the individual points of view of each family member, the stakes are greatly raised for the reader as we come to know, see and understand how they perceive all that goes on around them. One house get bulldozed, then burned. Another explodes. Brothers get put away in different institutions. One brother has his crotch tarred, the other finally finds solace in medications while their sister (Lisa) learns to rid herself of her abusive and reprehensible husband (Leo Fesmire). Jim and Pauline struggle to survive the loss of a child the best they know how, except neither is communicating with the other. The distance they create between one another seems impossible to breach.
This is a terrific novel that will have you laughing out loud when you aren’t shaking your head in frustration or choking with sympathy for this family seemingly condemned to bad luck and worse decisions.
Buy the The Suburbs of Heaven here.
Read the New York Times review here (with a link to the first chapter—read it and get hooked).
Why an MFA?
A few people have asked me why, at age 55, I decided to return to school and/or pursue literary fiction. It’s a pretty simple question to answer. After a failed attempt or two at crime novels in my early 20’s, I started writing plays that focused on relationships, addictions and all the messes people make of their lives. Then I was detoured for various reasons to a street life that permitted me to sow some wild oats while making a mess of my family. When I finally settled down with a woman unimpressed with the stupidness my life had become, I returned to writing and was well stocked with street knowledge. Writing what I knew and ignoring what I’d suppressed, especially with the influence of the George V. Higgins masterpiece, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, I turned to crime fiction. I continue to write crime fiction and suspect I always will, but a greater desire, one I may never conquer in publishable form, is literary fiction; a return to writing about relationships and the struggles all of us are engaged in as we try to co-exist. That bolded section in the last line is from a much better writer than myself, Mitch Wieland.
The book reviewed above (The Suburbs of Heaven) is another reason. Because this is the kind of writing I most admire and always want to read. At 55, what the hell do I have to lose following my heart? The heart is what made me chase my wife and that pursuit has been a winner since day one.
That’s why I’m in an MFA program this late in life ... because the worse I can do is learn.
El Gavilan, Craig McDonald
Border issues were never dealt with so fairly as in this new page turner from Craig McDonald. County Sheriff Able Hawk (Hawk is "Gavilan" in Spanish), is a man of principle willing to bend the law enough to set things right. Justice is foremost on his mind, especially when it comes to family and those he feels compelled to protect—the legal immigrants of the fictional Ohio town, New Austin. When a legal immigrant woman (Thalia Ruiz) he’s been protecting since her husband was killed in an explosion winds up raped and murdered and left in a ditch, the Hawk seeks justice for her with extreme prejudice.
Tell Lyon is the new chief of police in the same town and although competitive police departments aren’t supposed to get along, Tell and Able have similar tastes in justice. Lyon’s wife and daughter were murdered in a home firebombing by a Mexican gang when he worked border patrol in California. Now he meets a woman 15 years his junior, Patricia Maldonado, on her way out of a bad relationship with a local journalist and all around shit, Shawn O'Hara.
No spoilers here, but violence ensues when a neighboring county corrupt sheriff becomes the focus of the investigation into the murder of Thalia Ruiz, El Gavilan’s unofficial daughter, so to speak. The Hawk also has a grandson in love with a Mexican illegal and that’s an entire other subplot that intensifies all that happens in this exciting thriller. Short chapters (woven between present day action) provide the backstory for Thalia and her family, Able and his, as well as Tell and his family.
At a time of political polarization over issues great and small, it is nice to read a fair accounting of our southern immigration problem as told from all sides. El Gavilan is yet another winner from one of my favorite crime authors. El Gavilan is all about justice and how sometimes it requires what men hold in their hearts rather than their heads.
An Ed Gorman’s two-ffer ...
Last week a friend asked a favor of me for Ed Gorman. Here is some of his email to me:
The Day the Music Died and Wake Up Little Susie together in one edition for the first time. The new edition is called The Original Sam McCain Mysteries. As you may know these are wonderful mystery novels filled with 1950s nostalgia and dry humor. Initially this product will be available only as an ebook. The print version will be released about two weeks later. Genius Publishing will also be releasing each of these books individually over the next few weeks as both ebooks and in print.
We could use your support. Would you be willing to post/tweet a message to your followers about this wonderful new book? Facebook, blog, every bit helps.
As we all know, Ed has done a lot for the genre going back decades. Apart from co-founding and running Mystery Scene Magazine for many years, he has personally given a start to, assisted, and befriended countless crime, mystery, and horror authors. Also, along the way, Ed Gorman has also written some superb novels. These Sam McCain books are fine examples.
Me again, amici: I have a tweet account I’ve used once in my life and doubt I’ll ever use again, but I do have this dopey blog and if there’s anybody around who owes ED GORMAN a returned favor (or a hundred), it’s me. Those of you who read the intro to Johnny Porno will know why: Ed saved me from crime writing oblivion after my breakup with my previous publisher by suggesting me to Greg Shepherd at Stark House Press ... and here I be, the first original print for Stark House Press). This after he offered to make peace between me and my prior publisher, to which I answered (with my typical chip on my shoulder response): "I’d rather stay out of the writing business than go back there."
I love the Sam McCain novels and have reviewed a couple here (Bad Moon Rising) and here (Ticket to Ride). These novels are loaded with nostalgia those of yous my age (slightly younger or older) will smile from ear to ear reading.
The other thing about Ed Gorman, aside from his legendary writing career, he’s one of the most gracious men on this planet.
On a sad note, a co-worker at the Jersey law firm where I work, Francis, left us Friday (no, no, she didn't pass on, her temp assignment ended) ... but we’re all hoping she’ll be back. Francis sat behind me at work (not an easy thing to put up with—me) and told me of her husband Joe’s great weight loss with weight watchers (why I’m doing it). Apparently she gets up at 3:30 in the morning (just like me) and then cooks her husband’s weight watcher meals (I drink coffee, try to write and smoke my pipe). I thought, hell, Frances, why not invite me over some early morning to sample the grub? She never did answer ... but we’re all (at work) planning to visit her one day when she least expects it ... we’ll show up around 4:00 a.m. (giving her time to warm those weight watcher pancakes), then we'll ring her bell and shout “Frances, we’re here ..."
Frances recently told us about her mother, an absolute wonder at 84. Her mom just travelled to Mexico (by way of Cleveland) then instead of taking the day off when she returned from her vacation (and all those flights), she went into work the following day. We’ll miss Frances ... so ciao for now.
It aint opera and I have no clue what the lyrics are, but when you google “Ciao Francesca” and something pops up, you go with it.
How do you say goodbye without an opera? Forgetaboutit, here’s maestro Pavarotti from Madama Butterfly: Addio fiorito asil.