Monday, November 26, 2018
Book Review: "The Life We Bury" by Allen Eskens
Joe Talbert is struggling to get by on a day-to-day basis. He can barely afford college yet he's determined to stay there as long as he can, but he has to deal with the demands of his bipolar alcoholic mother, who often leaves him to tend to Jeremy, his autistic brother. Sometimes the tug-of-war between family and college is more than he can bear, yet he is wracked with guilt at the thought of leaving his brother in his mother's irresponsible and erratic care.
He gets an assignment in English class to interview a stranger and write a biography of them. Procrastinating for far too long, he goes to a nearby nursing home in the hopes of interviewing one of the residents. Instead, he winds up meeting Carl Iverson, a terminally ill man recently released from prison after more than 30 years, who was medically paroled to the nursing home. A Vietnam vet, Carl was convicted of the brutal rape and murder of a young girl.
When Carl and Joe begin talking, Carl makes it clear he will not lie to Joe. He simply wants to tell Joe his story, and Joe wants to understand why if Carl and his friend Virgil both insist that Carl is innocent, things went so awry during his trial and Carl never tried to correct the situation in all this time. How can he reconcile the man's heroism in Vietnam with the grisly crime scene pictures and the testimony presented against him?
"No sin could be greater than a sin that cannot be rectified, the sin you never get to confess. So this...this conversation with you...this is my dying declaration. I don't care if anybody reads what you write. I don't even care if you write it down at all...I have to say the words out loud. I have to tell someone the truth about what happened all those years ago. I have to tell someone the truth about what I did."
The more Joe and Carl talk, the more interested Joe becomes in the events of 30 years ago. He and his neighbor, Lila, begin combing through the files from the trial and start uncovering threads that never had been pursued at that time. But why didn't Carl give his attorney this information? Why did he simply give up and let the jury convict him?
The Life We Bury is both a compelling mystery and a moving character study of a young man dealing with more than his share of problems, who is determined that truth and justice get their due. His efforts aren't entirely magnanimoushe's hoping that his actions might help alleviate some guilt he's been carrying around for a long time. But by putting everyone else, including his brother, first, does he destroy his own chances to move beyond the bleak existence he's had for so long.
Allen Eskens is a fantastic writer, a fact I discovered when I read his amazing The Deep Dark Descending (see my review) last year. The Life We Bury was his debut novel, and it was pretty great itself, although I'll admit that I rolled my eyes a tiny bit that two college students would suddenly fancy themselves detectives.
That quirk notwithstanding, Eskens hooked me from the very first sentences, and even though I had some idea of how the book would resolve itself, that didn't affect my enjoyment at all. I loved Joe's character, and found his struggles between family and doing his own thing to be very familiar.
You can bet I'll be reading Eskens' other books now that I loved the first two I've read. He's a great combination of storyteller and master of suspense, and that makes for some great reading.