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Posts Tagged ‘father-son relations’

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.

THE POACHER’S SON by Paul Doiron: Book Review

Maine is only two states north of where I live, but there are parts of it that seem in a different world.  The Poacher’s Son, by Paul Doiron, takes us into the northernmost section of the Pine Tree State, far from the busy, tourist-visited city of Portland.  Mike Bowditch has lived in Maine north and south, but his heart (and his career) are in Down East’s dark woods.

Bowditch is twenty four, new to his job as a member of the Maine Warden Service. As he explains it, he’s not a forest ranger but a policeman whose duties are to enforce laws relating to game and fisheries.  He carries a gun and is a graduate of Colby College, the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, and the Advanced Warden Academy.  In the winter he investigates snowmobiling accidents, ice fishing, and hunting with hounds; in the summer it’s boating infractions, secret marijuana gardens, and poaching.  Actually, it’s poaching all year round, and he’s very familiar with poachers, as the title tells us.

Bowditch’s parents divorced when he was nine, and he saw his father only infrequently after that.  Jack Bowditch is a poacher, a heavy drinker, and a barroom brawler.  Father and son hadn’t spoken in two years when Mike comes home to a call on his answering machine.  It’s from his father, but there’s no message, no phone number at which to reach him.  So Mike doesn’t know what his father wants, but he’s pretty sure it’ll bring him trouble.  And he’s right.

The next morning Mike reads about a killing in the North Woods:  a policeman and a real estate developer were shot to death.  And later that day the man who owns the camp where Jack Bowditch worked calls to say, “They arrested him, Mike.  I don’t know how else to say it.”  The senior Bowditch was in trouble again.

Jack Bowditch makes it worse, of course, by fighting with the cop who comes to talk to him about the shootings.  The policeman places him under arrest, but somehow during their ride to jail Bowditch overpowers him and escapes.  Now there’s a state-wide manhunt for Bowditch–he’s wanted for resisting arrest, assault on a police officer, and the two shootings.  Mike holds no brief for his father, but he refuses to believe that he’s a killer.

Doiron gives the reader an incredible sense of place in this novel, and his love for his state comes through.  He takes you up almost to the Canadian border and then down to Scarborough, a suburb of Portland where my older son’s family happens to live.  Doiron himself has had an interesting career path:  he’s a native of Maine, a graduate of Yale University, has an MFA from Emerson College, is a Registered Maine Guide, and is the editor-in-chief of Down East:  The Magazine of Maine.  This is the first novel of what obviously is planned to be a series, and Doiron is off to an excellent start.

You can read more about Paul Doiron at his web site.