Ulfelder serves up yet another of a recent spate of “sobriety”-based novels - in this case a 12-step program as venue for a group of sober friends to offer assistance whenever one of them requests help. The “Barnburners” special cache is their “meeting-after-the-meeting,” a select few who gather to share skills and experiences, a recipe for vigilantism that belies the nature of recovery and the definition of “anonymity.” If violence and retribution is called for - and it usually is - such actions are acceptable among a rebel group that makes its own rules after paying homage to sobriety. All in service to the story. But aside from the reason for their association and the loyalty among particular friends, Ulfelder is such a good writer that this currently overworked hook is minor in the broad scheme of things.
Ulfelder rocks this novel from the first anarchic page to the last. Asked to retrieve a vintage Mercedes from a shop where it has languished for eighteen months, Conway Sax is willing to help fellow Barnburner Tander Phigg, although he harbors no particular affection for the man. In spite of Motorenwerks fancy title, the near-empty shop appears not to have much business. Making inquiries about the Mercedes, Sax is rewarded on his first visit by a blow to the head that renders him unconscious. The following day, Phigg is found hanging in a shack on his property. For a man who comes from family money, Phigg has come down in the world, the unfinished home on his riverside property a testament to a lifetime of failure.
Sax is no slouch - he did a bit for manslaughter, is currently on parole and recovering from the oblivion of alcoholism. A short career on the NASCAR circuit still haunts his dreams, the brass ring he let go of in a self-destructive path. He’s finally on track, restoring a house to flip and avoiding commitment to his very patient girlfriend, willing follow through even after Phigg’s suspicious death.
Conway is familiar with both sides of the law, a bad boy gone good (mostly) with all the contacts and skills of a borderline criminal life. Once engaged, he’s not likely to quit, even when clearly threatened. Definitely not Sax’s style. Conway is determined to finish what he started, especially after Phigg’s son, Trey, arrives on the scene with his wife and son from Vietnam. Ulfelder’s characters are rich and varied, from Trey Phigg and his family to an assortment of friends who support Conway’s unconditionally.
The bad guys are the real thing: an assortment of thugs, drug dealers and crazy Vietnam vets; the Beets Brothers, who would intimidate anyone sane; and the owner of Motorenwerks, who is in over his head and can’t get out. The most engaging and heartbreaking character is “Fast Freddie” Sax, Conway’s reprobate father, an infrequently sober drunk who appears out of the blue to break his son’s heart once again.
The action is fast-paced, beautifully rendered and complex - no easy emotional solutions here. Ulfelder taps into the nuanced terrain of the human heart where psyches are volatile, vulnerable and easily bruised. The revelations and betrayals come almost as fast as the actions of those on the trail of a lot of money, good and bad guys colliding much as they do in such a world, fine moral distinctions left for later consideration. This is a terrific debut by an exciting new voice, a writer brave enough to put it all out there and dare us to follow.