The Life We Bury, by Allen Eskens
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with genre fiction. It serves the same need that most movies do, i.e., pure entertainment, and it doesn’t need to be well written in order to claim an audience. But when genre fiction is well written, it transcends genre and deepens its literary merit. The author of this page -urner has made his writerly bones through the Minnesota State U. MFA program, the Iowa Summer Writing program, and at Minnesota’s Loft Literary Center. And that he took his time in those programs seriously shows in The Life We Bury, his first novel.
The story? A college student, Joe Talbert, unearths a decorated Viet vet, Carl Iverson, as the subject of an English paper, and coaxes a tainted story of heroism from Carl. Did I mention that Iverson is in prison for murdering and raping a fourteen year-old girl? Thus Joe decides to try to reopen Carl’s murder case before Carl dies from cancer. In doing so Joe puts his life and that of his soon-to-be girl friend, Lila, at risk as he impulsively chases clues to the fourteen year-old girl’s real murderer.
If this sounds boilerplate in the realm of mystery and crime stories, it is. But in Eskens’ hands it turns into something of a literary showpiece. While his dialogue is occasionally a bit clumsy in this first person point of view story, his depictions of the Minnesota and Iowa landscape, the seedy urban silhouettes, the breathtakingly dangerous but beautiful winter storms are first class. He has clearly studied the pacing of the mystery genre’s best writers, and his in this novel is stellar. And he seems to turn in his best writing near chapters’ ends, compelling this reader to stop and savor while urging the next page to be turned. This book is a rarity among first novels in its quality of writing and entertainment value. Surely good things are ahead for Mr. Eskers’ writing career.
My Rating: 17 of 20 stars