Several characters fight the demons of their tormented childhoods and strive to be on “the right side of zero” in this dark tale.
Linnell’s (Reflex Blue, 2014) novel is told from the perspectives of three troubled residents of a small Minnesota town: Denise Dupree, Carl, and Rex. Denise struggles with alcoholism. Carl, who pines for her, believes that he suffers from a trifecta of mental illnesses: social anxiety, schizophrenia (including hearing a voice that calls him “Eddie”), and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Rex, Denise’s heedless boyfriend, seems plagued by uncontrollable sexual desire and sociopathy. The reader learns about their lives through Carl’s first-person narrative; Rex’s entries in his “Little Black Book,” in which he logs his sexual conquests; and Denise’s letters to her estranged father. It becomes clear that their problems are, in part, due to their respective absent parents: Carl’s mother and father spent more time at their business than with their son; Rex was raised by his Uncle Smokey, a reprobate; and Denise’s emotionally distant father apparently ignored the fact that Denise was sexually abused. (In one letter, she woefully asks, “did you really not know what your older brother was up to?...You coward.”) The action effectively ramps up when one character commits suicide and two others become involved in a kidnapping; an act of vigilante murder reveals more ugly truths. The surviving players eventually try for redemption, either by helping another lost soul or by acting on revelations. Linnell’s greatest strength lies in how he constructs his various characters’ backstories. He engagingly reveals these events, which are riddled with moments of emotional neglect and instances of violence, as told in sporadic, reflective flashbacks or accounts of present-day confrontations. Overall, these revelations neatly justify the characters’ fraught emotional states. The author further enhances the plot with occasional slow-burn mysteries (who is “Eddie,” anyway?) and unexpected twists, such as when a side character is revealed to have played a pivotal role in a major character’s past.
An entertaining, if sometimes-unsettling, novel that adeptly contextualizes the reasons for its cast’s fragile psyches.