Barflies in a blue-collar town share tangled destinies in Reardon’s third (Blameless, 2000, etc.).
“Old Jerry” isn’t as old as he looks, but, as the song goes, gin and rum and destiny play funny tricks. On the eve of his alleged 70th birthday party, Jerry lets all the regulars at McGurk’s Tap Room, in Ypsilanti, Michigan (the grim outer darkness of Ann Arbor), know he’s in the market for assisted suicide. Those regulars, introduced pell-mell in the confusing opening chapters, include his grandsons, Gabriel (a.k.a. P.T.) and Charlie, whom Jerry has cared for since bar owner Gil ran their abusive father out of town. P.T., brain-damaged from taking paternal punches for his younger brother, is only too happy to oblige Jerry, smothering him with a pillow. Charlie, a B&E man, and his friend Gino dispose of the body, and Charlie takes the rap for P.T., enlisting for a stint in Vietnam to avoid prison. On his return, Charlie weds pen pal Diane and is the first of his low-life crowd to marry up. But McGurk’s lures him back, into an ever more noxious atmosphere. Gil’s new wife is a hooker who takes their child and returns to her batterer boyfriend. P.T. descends into madness as he recalls his role in his mother’s death. Charlie’s ex-girlfriend Sheila resurfaces with his unwanted daughter. Vietnam has also scarred Gino, who is tormented by horrors he photographed but can’t describe. Soon, Charlie must cover for another murder. Minor players such as Detective Tavera, Gil’s daughter Katherine, and Bobby, the omnibus fixer of Ypsi, are vividly drawn. The dialogue—although Leonardesque—rings true. Although the happy domestic arrangements at end suggest that Jane Austen may have been called in for a rewrite, we sense that the characters’ revision of history will endure only until their kids are old enough to claim stools at McGurk’s.
Reardon’s hard-core survivors snatch vitality from the jaws of cliché.