Nine loosely linked stories—or perhaps one loosely episodic novel—about infidelity, alcoholism, insanity, and other small-town ills, all told brilliantly and with humor and great compassion.
The narrative voice Deaver creates here is never judgmental but rather understanding, tolerant, and always curious about what incidents will next unfold. The drama plays out in the unlikely venue of Tuscola, Illinois, a small college town that contains almost more turmoil than one can process. In the opening story, “Vasco and the Virgin,” Vasco Whirly—a former professor who becomes a coal miner when he doesn’t get tenure—has a vision of the Virgin Mary. His estranged wife thinks he’s delusional and takes his young daughters away from him, but at the end of the story, in a final vision, Vasco has an epiphany of humanity worthy of Flannery O’Connor. Three major recurring characters we come to know throughout the stories are Lowell Wagner, professor of psychology (and also the local therapist and keeper of many of the townspeople’s secrets), his friend Wally, and Wally’s wife, Carol, a talented pianist marooned in the backwater of Tuscola. She has several affairs and moves in and out of a friendship with Veronica, Lowell’s wife. The title story alludes to the Forty Martyrs Catholic Church, whose priest, Father Randall Kelleher, not only hears confessions from parishioners like Wally (who's assaulted Carol with a knife), but also has to put up with the indignities of a church robbery. Eventually, when Lowell abruptly leaves Tuscola for a four-week rehab program, Veronica has a brief fling with Howard Packer, a Vietnam vet she hired to do some work around the house while Lowell is away.
While reducing the stories to mere summaries makes them sound like either clichés or soap operas, Deaver’s solicitude—and even love—for his characters elevates them to the level of beauty.