An ex-con can’t seem to catch a break in his old hometown.
After robbing a liquor store one ugly night, Luce Lemay drives drunk and loses control of his car, killing a child in a baby carriage. A couple years later, at the start of the story, he’s released from an Illinois prison and catches a bus for La Harpie, the small downstate town where he was born and raised. Luce isn’t happy about going back—his crime wasn’t the kind that people tend to forget—and La Harpie itself holds no promise: “A place of a kind of quiet villainy and secret lust.” But there’s a job there, at a gas station where Juinor, a friend from prison, has put in a good word for him. Luce has barely gotten back into town when he runs into Charlene, the younger sister of a girl he dated in high school (and who’s now in a mental institution, possibly due to Luce). They each carry a doomed torch for one another, but Charlene’s ex-fiancé isn’t having any of it. Luce struggles through the days, living in the same rooming house with Junior, an odd, older man-child who turns the gas-station signage into abstract poetry and carries a miasma of fate and death about him. Second-novelist Meno (Tender as Hellfire, 1999), a Columbia University writing professor, coats this world with Luce’s fatalistic worldview (he’s apparently incapable of seeing beyond the moment, or imagining any good in the world). For such grim subject matter, the author moves the story along at a surprisingly fast and easy pace, never succumbing to the overkill that American gothic tales are often prone to, seeming to take his inspiration equally from the stories of Jim Thompson and the lyrics of Nick Cave.
The evil eyes of small-town America seem to peer from every page of Meno’s claustrophic noir, where the good and the bad are forced down the same violent paths.