In Graham’s debut novel, a troubled young man experiences tragedy when he goes too far in his quest to become a hometown hero.
When Officer Peter Logan of the Smithton, Ill., police department arrives at Mike Burke’s home to arrest him, the events unfold with a weary inevitability: Mike doesn’t bother to resist, and his parents sadly stand by on the front porch. As residents of the small, economically depressed town drive by, they slow down to eagerly catch a glimpse of the action. Years of gradual marginalization led Mike to this point, and his story unfolds in a series of methodical flashbacks triggered by Mike’s police-car ride through town. Readers learn that Peter and Mike played cops and robbers together as children and that Peter, the son of a real-life policeman, always made Mike play the bad guy. As the years went by, Peter developed into a callous, confident high-school sports star while Mike grew increasingly withdrawn and fixated on hypermasculine role models such as Rocky Balboa and a local Desert Storm veteran. Mike’s attempt to enlist in the Army after high school was stymied by a birth defect—the “inverted heart” of the novel’s title. As a grown man living at home and working at a dead-end grocery store job, Mike’s hunger for recognition finally gave way to a misguided act of violence that no one saw coming. At its most effective, Graham’s slow, methodical prose manages to mimic the gradual erosion of Mike’s humanity. His decidedly thin characterizations of most of the supporting players also hint at Mike’s increasingly impassive regard for others—a trait that eventually leads to his downfall. Too often, however, these devices make for rather tedious reading, particularly for those seeking a closer connection to the characters. They impose a psychological distance that may prevent readers from truly relating to Mike, or the reasons behind his numbing crime.
A timely, meticulously wrought tale of young manhood gone wrong that never quite gets to the heart of the matter.