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Posts Tagged ‘alcoholics’

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.

A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF by Lawrence Block: Book Review

In 1994 Lawrence Block was named a Grand Master, the highest award given by the Mystery Writers of America. Agatha Christie was the first recipient, and others include John D. MacDonald, John LeCarre, Sue Grafton, Graham Greene, and this year’s recipient, Sara Paretsky.  Pretty good company to be keeping.

Block’s latest book is A Drop of the Hard Stuff, the seventeenth in the Scudder series.  It takes the reader back to the first year of Matt Scudder’s hard-won sobriety.

Scudder was a New York City policeman until a bullet he shot while chasing a suspect ricocheted off a wall and killed a little girl. Shortly after that, Scudder left his wife, two sons, and the police department.  He moved into a single room in a Manhattan hotel and tried to drink himself to death.

The first few books in the series take place during the time Scudder is drinking heavily and experiencing blackouts.  Eventually, after a number of tries, he pulls himself together and joins Alcoholics Anonymous and lives “one day at a time,” as they say in A.A.  At this point in time he has been sober for years.  A Drop of the Hard Stuff begins when Scudder and his friend Mick Ballou are talking over old times.

Scudder tells the story of his meeting up with a boyhood chum from The Bronx, Jack Ellery.  As Scudder sort of drifted into becoming a policeman, Ellery sort of drifted into becoming a criminal.  Ellery had been drinking for many years, and as he told Scudder, he never got into trouble when he was sober, only when he was drunk.  He’d been imprisoned several times but never did major time.

Now Ellery is out of jail, and he’s achieving sobriety through A.A.  One of the steps in the program is making amends, going to the people you hurt or injured when you were an alcoholic and asking them how you can make it right. Ellery is jumping ahead to the Eighth Step before he’s done all the previous steps, trying to make amends, and he has a list of all the people he’s wronged.  But the responses from those people aren’t what he’d hoped, and one of them wants him dead.

Block is an incredible writer.  I was caught from page one.  He has a way with dialogue that makes the reader think she’s/he’s part of the conversation in the book.  And some of his sentences simply jump out of the page at you.  Scudder, in remembering a new suit he’d bought years ago when he was still married:  “I’d bought the suit to impress…my wife had admired that suit, and so had my girlfriend.”

The Matt Scudder series needs to be begun, if not from the first novel, at least as close to the beginning as possible.  Otherwise the struggles Scudder has with alcohol can’t come across in a meaningful way, and his victory over drink won’t be as important to you as it should be.  You’ll find yourself rooting for him to overcome his dependence on alcohol, angry when he slips, and cheering him on when he succeeds.  But you know that every day is a struggle for him, and seeing it from the beginning heightens its impact.

Lawrence Block has written several other series as well as stand-alone novels, books for writers, and a memoir.  He’s a truly gifted author in every genre, but I like his Matthew Scudder books the best.

You can read more about Lawrence Block at his web site.