Author: Marshall Thornton
Cover Artist: Image: Shutterstock; Design: Marshall Thornton
Rating: 4.5 of 5 Stars
Publication Date: 11/23/2014
Length: Novel (~ 50K-100K)
Genre: Bisexual, Crime Fiction, Drama, Erotica, Fiction, Gay, Gay Fiction, Historical
Palm Springs, 1973. Don Harris is a piano player on the run after killing a Chicago mobster’s son in a bar fight. On the lam, he meets a pretty blonde girl in town for a convention. He lets down his guard and spends the night with her only to discover she’s the younger sister of his best friend all grown-up. Foolishly, she tips her brother off to Don’s location, and he’s on the run again, hoping to find a safe place to land.
Out of money and desperate, Don accidentally walks into a gay bar where he allows a kid named Harlan to pick him up so he’ll have a place to stay. As the mob chases them, Don begins to fall for the kid, putting them both in harm’s way. Harlan has problems of his own, and Don knows he shouldn’t get involved but he can’t help but step in when Harlan gets in trouble. To save himself, Don’s got to save Harlan.
Candles, under glass with silly-looking metal hats, provided the lighting. I had to have my own piano light attached to the Steinway. They couldn’t find the real thing, so they used the kind you get for an expensive oil painting. The kind you stuck on top so you could see a painting clear enough to wonder why the hell you ever bought it.
I just like this passage. That’s why I included it. It’s from chapter one and provides hints to our narrator’s personality before much else has been revealed about him this early in the story. It also serves as a way of showing how far from this starting point Don, said narrator, ends up by the time I got to the last page of this book. He’s been going through the emotional ringer most of his life and that doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon. What might be changing? His outlook on it all, and his ability to continue surviving what seem to be constantly appearing pitfalls and no-win situations.
Four chapters in and things are grim. I don’t want to give anything away but I’ll say Don is running, from his past, his mistakes, and even his (former?) best friend. He served in Viet Nam which, of course, is having lasting effects on his life back home. Guns, adrenaline, death, regrets, and hiding from all of those things take up most of his living days, and sometimes his sleeping ones.
It’s fascinating the way the mind works in trying to process shocks to the system. Don isn’t exactly new at this but even he’s surprised at some of his own reactions to the goings on around him. The way Thornton examines someone living a life like this feels all consuming while reading this. Don is feeling like there’s no escape, even while running, and I felt the same way.
Drank water when I was thirsty. Ate when I was hungry. Slept every so often. I even laughed at the TV shows I watched, whether they were funny or not. It surprised me that I did these things. Why not just let the pain swallow me and have done with it? But then, bigger than guilt, bigger than self-hatred, was my will to survive. I kept going.
Now and then, the prose drifts into cut and dry territory, reading more like “just the facts, ma’am, just the fact” instead of Don’s showing us what was going on. This never lasted long, though, because this is Marshall Thornton and he doesn’t do cut and dry anything. His characters are ‘every-person’ people stuck in unusual circumstances and settings that show off just how vulnerable, hopeful, frustrated, dream-driven, and imperfect they are.
This also means he doesn’t shy away from the truth of any situation, and the realistic consequences resulting from them and the decisions the characters make that result in sometimes subtle but no-turning-back-now changes in the path their lives are on. All of this means I feel surrounded by the story, that inability to escape feeling. Specifically, Don had me curious the entire way through, and Harlan sprinkled me with intrigue, oh yeah. About half way through? Things took quite a turn, a quiet but definite turn, and I smiled despite the darkness and danger that still surrounded these two, and probably always would.
This is a story about self-discovery wrapped in a gritty, dangerous, tenuously hopeful, frightening, packed full of surprises package, set in the 1970s with its simultaneously simple and complicated ways. The characters never wander into falsehood for the sake of moving the plot forward, which is especially fantastic since our main guys are “bad” guys who show how ‘bad’ isn’t one-dimensional but instead one dimension among many. The intensity pretty much never lets up and I didn’t really know where things would end up. The ending is a beginning, allowing my own imagination to have its way with what comes next for Don and Harlan.
The experience of reading a Marshall Thornton story is unlike any other.
Book hangover, anyone?
This review is based on a copy purchased by the reviewer independent of any review copies offered.
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