"Death of A Writer"
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte JAN 1, 2007)
"If you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares into you."
Dr. Robert Pendleton is a professor at Bannockburn College, a standard issue liberal arts college in the Midwest. He started out his career as a promising fiction writer but soon his work fizzles out – and he takes up teaching. The Pendleton that the book opens to is already depressed with his prospects, with his station in life and with what he views as professional failure. To make matters worse, his old nemesis, Allen Horowitz, an immensely popular writer, has been invited to give a speech at the college reminding Pendleton of his stagnating life. “He needed to hide behind the façade of a professor given to the profession of teaching. If the cocoon of isolation was complete at Bannockburn, or at least if self-delusion could be maintained for
months at a time, it was broken in these encounters, in this infiltration by outside life," Collins writes of Pendleton preparing for Horowtiz’s visit.
In an ultimate state of despair, Pendleton decides he’ll commit suicide and overdoses on sleeping pills and vodka, after bequeathing his literary work to a long-time graduate student, Adi Wiltshire. But even here, he finds no salvation. Wiltshire saves him from death but he is left a vegetable barely able to comprehend events happening around him. Wiltshire moves into Pendleton’s house and takes charge of both his care and his assets.
One day Wiltshire discovers a case of published books – the book is written by Pendleton but has never appeared officially in his body of work. Wiltshire is convinced she owes Pendleton this bit of fame and re-publishes the work “Scream,” with help from the famous Horowitz. The book is a runaway hit and becomes one of those rare things – a bestseller that also wins massive critical acclaim. "Nietzsche meets Charles Manson," the reviews scream.
Soon though, something disturbing surfaces. A murder detailed in “Scream” is very much patterned like a local unresolved murder that happened years ago. What’s more upsetting Wiltshire has proof that the book was published before the actual murder. Could Pendleton be the murderer? If so, how can justice be meted out when he is merely a vegetable?
In what turns out to be an intense page-turning mystery, a local detective Jon Ryder chases down all the clues that will cast aspersion on a wide range of characters in the small town surrounding Bannockburn College. As Collins has ably demonstrated before, he is a master at painting the details of blue collar life and travails especially in the depressed regions of the American Midwest. Here too, in precise prose his characters all shine as they slowly illuminate the pieces of a larger puzzle.
Michael Collins’ greatest strength is his ability to weave a well-laid out story. The story in Death of a Writer is also rich with suspense down to the very last pages. The book’s pace is relentless. Every minute detail in every scene is so taut that it leaves you breathless. Especially memorable are the descriptions of how Wiltshire spends her time in Pendleton’s old house. The touch of sinister here is wonderfully done. Even if Ryder’s inquiry sometimes throws up one red herring too many, this is a compelling read.
At one point early in the book, before Pendleton commits suicide, he complains that his books never moved people enough to laugh or cry – at least it never moved the people who cared enough to buy books. “The reality is the other kinds of people don't necessarily buy books. They get them from the library,” Pendleton says. Death of a Writer might not make you laugh or cry but its taut storytelling makes it one of the more entertaining novels published in 2006. Read this book – even if it means you have to get it from the library.
- Amazon readers rating: from 8 reviews
(Reviewed by Judi Clark AUG 22, 2004)
“Kyle Johnson was our deliverance, the mark by which we would measure our lives--- our lives before and after Kyle Johnson. I feel the way people might feel after shaking the hand of a president, like your life has been ennobled by their mere presence.”
If Mary Whipple were working on this review, she'd have sent me an e-mail by now warning me that this book is very bleak. But then, the book is titled “Lost Souls” so how could one expect it to be anything else? Certainly, not eventually hopeful as in a book called “The Resurrectionists.” Working with Mary I have learned that I have a propensity for the books she calls bleak. I seem to have a high tolerance for the foreboding, noir style that is usually more cynical than optimistic. But with Lost Souls, even I have to admit that this is blatant despair, almost too much to handle; this narrator is scraping bottom. In fact, he’s so low he’s proverbially digging his own grave, which makes for one unusual and extraordinary murder mystery and if you are into this style story, you have got to read this book.
Lawrence, a police officer, narrates the events that take place in 1984 in this small Indiana town. It all starts on a fairly typical Halloween evening, nothing major for the police department to deal with outside of some kids who tied firecrackers to a cat’s tail and a false claim from a punk that he found razor blades in an apple. Lawrence spends most the evening scanning candy bags at the mall where his town holds it annual trick-or-treating event. In the spirit of the event, Lawrence is dressed like Obi-Wan Kenobi and using his “saber” to scan candy for metal. We sense from the start that Lawrence’s life began to unravel two years earlier when his wife blindsided him with a divorce and remarried. Lawrence tells us of the highlight of his evening when he unexpectedly recognizes his son dressed in a prizewinning ET costume. He’s unable to say anything out of respect for his son who is nervous because it’s not their authorized night together. Lawrence is clearly on a personal decline of which he feels is beyond his control. “There are times when you are a victim of circumstance, “ our narrator explains. Of course later, we learn just how well he has set himself up for this truth.
It is after the mall finally closes and he is home for the evening about to start a week’s vacation in which he has planned to head up north to his cabin, when gets the call from dispatch about a missing girl. A single mother has lost her three-year-old daughter; she left the door open while drinking herself unconscious and apparently the girl slipped out of the apartment. Lawrence knows this is not going to be good. And it isn’t. He eventually finds the little girl dead on the side of the road, run over by a vehicle, most likely while kids were ramming their vehicles into the leaf-stuffed pumpkin bags – a traditional activity encouraged in this small town.
The longest night ends with a morning meeting between Lawrence, the Mayor and the Police Chief. They call Lawrence in because he’s the one that found the little girl. But the mayor also wants to make a deal; if Lawrence plays this situation right he can replace the Chief who is getting ready to retire. The problem is that there was an eyewitness who reported the license plate of a truck seen in the vicinity and the truck belongs to Kyle Johnson, the football player who is about to take this small town all the way to the state championship. Lawrence is chosen for this job for another reason; the mayor is ostensibly calling in a favor. The Mayor saved Lawrence from losing his job and going to jail a couple years earlier when Lawrence let things get out of control with his wife when she asked for the divorce. The Mayor, who doubles as a car dealer, sees much at stake here; there is great economical benefit to the town in protecting Kyle Johnson.
“I don’t have to tell you, Lawrence, what this upcoming weekend means to all of us. We are on the verge of something mythic, a team from Indiana cornfields that rises up and takes on the city teams. It’s that age-old story, David versus Golath. There are papers from Chicago, Indianapolis, and beyond, coming to cover this story… we are at the heart of the American dream right here.”
The narration of this story is very interesting because it is told in the order of the sequence of events, revealing one day at a time, fact building upon fact, action upon action, consequence upon consequence with each new bit of information adding its own twist. Even though it feels real time as it is told, there is a constant forebodingness; the narrator already knows how everything turns out. “In the retelling of things, sometimes I think that if I could get it told right I could change it, I could make it come out different.” He’s taking another look at the events to see just how things could get so misinterpreted and out of sorts. Wrapped up in this mystery is Lawrence himself. The mayor is a politically motivated man and even if he didn’t know how self-destructive Lawrence was before getting him involved, he certainly doesn’t mind using this tendency to his advantage now that things are rolling out of control.
There are so many lost souls in this novel that understanding the title on a surface level is not all that hard. Lois, the police dispatcher, is living alone with her husband’s nasty parrot (the only witness to her husband’s suicide) and she has been coping by being a “doormat for every man in sight.” She and Lawrence have a relationship by convenience or maybe just happenstance, whatever, Lois would take more from him if he’d give it. She’s always asking questions that she doesn’t want to hear the answer to ( “How would you rate me next to your wife?”). Lawrence doesn’t want to think about these answers either. He tries to make Lois happy, but always misses, frequently only seeing her after he’s completely intoxicated. Meanwhile, Lois seems to also be taking care of another lost soul, the aging (and extremely bigoted) Police Chief.
The Mayor does not seem as much of a lost soul in the lonely sense but he’s as smarmy as you’d expect a car dealer to be (“How come you got Salesman of the Year trophy here if you are the only salesman on the lot, Mayor?"). His wife, Jean, is a successful real estate agent and cancer survivor, but her focus is clearly money.
Kyle Johnson’s mother is a religious fanatic; his father is a frustrated ex-football star who begrudges Kyle his every win by beating him up post game. The absolutely most lost of all is the mother of the dead child. She lives in subsidized housing alone with seemingly no family or friends in town. Lawrence is drawn to know more about her, especially after seeing her sit at the window of her apartment during the dark of the night. Lawrence thinks of her as a sort of soul mate and wants to help her. The Mayor and Police Chief and Lois think this is a bad idea.
The only healthy people seem to be the woman strong enough to know what they want – like Lawrence’s ex-wife and Kyle’s college bound girlfriend. And as for Kyle. He has his own demons to contend with. Even though the Mayor and Police Chief want to say the dead child was an accident, that whomever hit her probably didn’t really know that they did, Kyle does know. But for Kyle it’s a matter of religious retribution. He is a sinner.
Like The Resurrectionists, Collins loads his sentences with information. “Seth Hansen, my wife’s new husband, was a Christian zealot who sold life insurance and worked with the Amish community, selling their handmade furniture through a catalog company, since the Amish community hated the modern world but somehow wanted the modern world’s money. Seth also drove their communal minibus. Although the Amish had no qualms traveling in modern transportation, they didn’t want to actually drive it.” Even in telling about Seth Hansen, we know that Lawrence is saying as much about himself as he is about Seth in citing these incongruities.
There are a lot of smart observations in a book like this. Far too many to mention here. But to give one small example, on Thanksgiving Day, Lawrence decides to spend it helping at a homeless shelter. But, no sooner than he gets there and sees how the churchgoing folks treat the people coming for the meal, that is, sending them to the showers, checking for sobriety, preventing them from smoking, he decides that “humiliation and self-deprecation were simply the price of admission.” Before the day is out, he ends up at a strip joint across the street, tucking dollars in a middle-age stripper’s g-string. He notices that when she finishes her shift and calls home to instruct her child how to make lumpless gravy for their turkey dinner. He observes, “I guess if you knew the rules, life was negotiable.” Humiliation and self-deprecation can be one’s own call.
Michael Collin’s is a truly remarkable writer. When I first started MostlyFiction.com and was setting up the bookshelves I wanted the Mystery bookshelf to be filled with books like this one – not just straight procedural detective books but those that make you think about the world we live in, those that make you relish every sentence as you read it, those about murders that happen to ordinary people who behave in ordinary ways and thus resulting in extraordinary crime novels. Just as The Resurrectionists was one of my top picks for 2002, Lost Souls will be one of my picks for 2004. I like it for its observations as well as the twists of the murder mystery. The chosen title Lost Souls goes way beyond the surface level by the time we learn the who and what of the young child's death.
- Amazon readers rating: from 17 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Lost Souls at Penguin Group(back to top)
(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 02, 2003)
"I got out and put on the tire chains, and in the dark of night we moved slowly through sleeping unincorporated towns, like some phantom ghost rattling its fetters. I felt the change come over me, my past life opening up again. For me the subconcious had always been a real place, not just some nondescript darkness but that vegetative Michigan darkness, an inner darkness of shadowy meandering tributaries that led nowhere, a place where men disappeared forever, where there was no history, just a limbo world of things forgotten or half remembered."
"Like everything else in life, there are stories within stories."
In this absorbing and multi-layered can't-put-it-downer, Collins provides the reader with innumerable vantage points from which to view the lives of Frank Cassidy and his quirky and dysfunctional family, to see life as Frank sees it, and to watch in fascination as each family member grows and changes. Stuck by circumstance and lack of opportunity at the bottom rung of the economic ladder, Frank, "a scavenger at the edge of existence," Honey, and their children leave New Jersey in a series of stolen cars for the Upper Michigan Peninsula, as soon as they discover that Frank's uncle, who raised him, has died on his farm. An inheritance, however small, could change their lives.
An old mystery lies at the heart of the novel. Frank's parents died in a fire when he was five, and, through hypnosis and, eventually, treatment for a breakdown, he's come to believe that he and his uncle were both involved in these deaths in some way. To compound this mystery, his uncle appears to have been murdered by a unidentified stranger who was found waiting upstairs of the dead man's house. Returning to "a town nobody returns to unless under tragic circumstances," Frank starts digging into the past and disrupting lives.
On the level of plot alone, the novel is full of excitement, enhanced by vibrant characters with whom one feels great empathy as they wrestle against the circumstances that keep them down, bending the rules, if not breaking them, whenever they can. The vividly described remote farm environment, the mores of the local community, and the treacherous winter weather generate much of the action and interaction. Collins expands the scope of the novel well beyond plot and melodrama, however, by recreating the ambience of the 1970's and using Richard Nixon, Watergate, and Jim Jones as thematic motifs which recur throughout the novel and show parallels with his characters and story.
As the title indicates, this is also a novel with religious parallels, so well integrated that many readers may not even notice them, at first. The Prodigal Son, the Book of Job, and the story of Lot's wife are fairly obvious, while the Parable of the Loaves and Fishes (in this case a trick in which one hits a Coke machine at the right moment to get both the Coke and the money back) may be less so. References to good and evil, hope and despair, death and rebirth, and salvation and resurrection occur throughout, as Frank and his family adapt to life in a small town, try to cope with their internal conflicts, and ultimately to come out ahead.
A beautifully developed novel of big ideas, The Resurrectionists is engaging and, to me, totally satisfying on every level. Though I enjoyed Collins's Keepers of Truth, I liked this novel even better--it's one of my favorites of 2002.
- Amazon readers rating: from 39 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Resurrectionists at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Man Who Dreamt of Lobsters: Stories (1993)
- The Life and Times of Teaboy (1995)
- The Feminist Go Swimming: Stories (1997)
- The Emerald Underground (1998)
- The Keepers of the Truth (September 2001)
- The Resurrectionists (September 2002)
- Lost Souls (August 2004)
- Death of a Writer (September 2006) (a.k.a. The Secret Life of E. Robert Pendleton)
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- Official web site for Michael Collins
- CurledUp.com review of The Keepers of the Truth
- DesiJournal.com review of The Resurrectionists
- Guardian Unlimited review of The Resurrectionists
- Washington Post review of The Resurrectionists
- Guardian Unlimited review of Lost Souls
- LeaderPub.com review of Lost Souls
- Three Monkeys interview with Michael Collins on Lost Souls
- SeattlePI review of Death of a Writer
- Washington Post review of Death of a Writer
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About the Author:
Michael Collins was born in Limerick, Ireland. He was educated in Ireland and America and received his PhD from the University of Illinois in Chicago. His book, The Man Who Dreamt of Lobsters, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1993. His recent novel, The Keepers of Truth, was shortlisted for the 2000 Booker and 2002 IMPAC Prizes and named Irish Book of the Year.
When not writing, Collins is a computer programmer at Microsoft and also competes in extreme sports events around the world, under the most brutal conditions. He won the Last Marathon in Antarctica in 1997 and competed in what is dubbed The World's Hardest Ski Race, a 160 kilometre Himalayan Stage Race, described as "100 miles of masochism over 5 days," winning the overall race and the Everest Marathon -- a full marathon at 12,000 feet above sea level along the India-Nepal border. He recently won the 2006 North Pole Marathon.
He lives in Bellingham, Washington with his wife, Dr. Hiedi Napora Collins and their daughter Nora.