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PURGATORY CHASM by Steve Ulfelder: Book Review

Once a Barnburner, always a Barnburner.  That’s how Conway Sax got hooked into the murder business.

In Purgatory Chasm Sax is a recovering alcoholic, and the Barnburners were his group within Alcoholics Anonymous. They formed a tight-knit group within the larger one, and if one Barnburner was in trouble, the others helped.  But some were able to be of more help than others.

When Tander Phigg needs help getting his Mercedes back from the auto mechanic who is supposedly repairing it, he calls on Sax.  Phigg tells Sax that he brought his car to Das Motorenwerk more than a year earlier, gave the mechanic $3500 as a down payment for repairs, but now he can’t get either his car or his money back.

Since Sax had been a NASCAR driver and had worked on Phigg’s car years before, he’s persuaded to try to get either the car or the money returned.  But his visit to Motorenwerk isn’t exactly what he expected–first the owner laughs at his request, then he’s hit so hard on the head that when he wakes up he’s several hundred feet from the garage, on the ground, with no memory of how he got there.

Sax’s life hasn’t been easy. His father, also an alcoholic, left the family in Minnesota when Sax was eleven, but the boy persuaded his mother to let him go to New York to live with his father several years later.  In retrospect, Sax thinks, it probably wasn’t the smartest move he ever made, literally or figuratively.

Time has passed since then, time during which Sax threw away his racing career, as his father had done before him, with alcohol and ended up in a Massachusetts prison for manslaughter.  He’s still on parole, with eleven months left to serve.

On the plus side, Sax is rehabbing a house to sell it, has a sharp girlfriend with a funny eleven-year-old daughter, and is still sober.  On the minus side, he hasn’t seen his father in years, not since he spotted him panhandling at a tollboth and left him standing there.

Sax can’t seem to stay out of trouble, so it’s not much of a surprise that he goes back to Phigg to tell him what happened at Motorenwerk and to get more of the story out of him.  But the surprise is that Phigg is hanging by the neck in a shack behind his semi-built house, hanging as in dead.

Sax’s motives are all over the place. He wants to get the car/money back, even after Phigg’s death, because he said he would.  When Phigg’s son, Trey, returns from Vietnam with a wife and child, he wants to get the money to give to Trey.  And when Sax’s father turns up after years of no contact, he wants to help keep the old man sober.

Steve Ulfelder, himself an amateur race car driver and co-owner of a company that builds race cars, is a natural storyteller. He’s written for trade journals and newspapers, but Purgatory Chasm is his first novel.  It’s a look into the tough men (and women) who drive around tracks at breakneck speeds, looking for their moment of glory.  This is a tough read about people who lead tough lives but whose humanity and caring will touch you as they try, with some successes and some failures, to straighten out their lives.

You can read more about Steve Ulfelder at his web site.

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