In Shelburne’s (Clemmie, 2012, etc.) novel, a man reluctantly returns to his small, Southern hometown for his estranged mother’s funeral and becomes inextricably caught up in the lives of his former childhood friends.
There’s “never a dull moment out here in the sticks,” a Martinsville, Tennessee, storekeeper observes in this fast-paced novel. It opens with a harrowing drunk-driving accident involving a carful of long-separated former friends. Matthew is a divorced man who’s anxious to return to his fledgling Denver law practice and bemoans being “stuck here in Podunk Junction with all its misfits”; Ivy League–educated Bernie is a now-conservative family man with a lucrative dry-cleaning business; and Joe Bob is a mechanic who lives in a trailer park. They pile into a car after a night of drinking with Joe Bob driving, and they accidentally hit and kill a local man. The trio decides to “let sleeping dogs lie” and not report the accident—a decision that casts a long shadow over their reunion. The narrative takes eccentric twists and turns, including a bizarre encounter with a snake-handling cult and a pregnant young “gypsy” whom the men find in a cabin. Although the book’s title suggests a Steven Seagal–style action-thriller, the narrative itself is more akin to the dysfunctional-family dramas of Sam Shepard or Tracy Letts. Matthew, for example, struggles to find closure regarding his feelings toward his small-town roots and his emotionally distant parent (“I wanted to be on my way, back to my real life,” he reflects. “I would bury Martinsville, Tennessee along with my mother”). Add to the mix Matthew’s increasingly unbalanced ex-wife, who shows up seeking to reconcile; soap-opera–like developments involving his angry, embittered sister; and a discovery of infidelity, and readers will begin to believe the maxim that you can’t go home again—or at least, you shouldn’t. Although the dramatic payoff of the drunk-driving incident is anticlimactic, the dialogue could use more snap, and some broadly drawn situations could use more authenticity, this book is anything but predictable. In a small town where “unpleasant things got swept under rugs,” Shelburne allows for the possibility of renewal and redemption.
This noir-shadowed melodrama’s realistic characters will hold readers’ interest.