It is something of a literary tradition to portray the small town as a breeding ground for dark secrets that emerge to shatter its innocuous facade. In his gripping new novel, Lost Souls, Michael Collins effectively depicts the sinister underside of an unnamed, economically depressed Midwestern town coping with the aftermath of a horrific tragedy. As the story unfolds, long-buried secrets about the town's residents and leaders come to the surface, with ultimately ruinous consequences.

The tale opens on Halloween night, when three-year-old Sarah Kendall is reported missing. Local police officer Lawrence, the novel's narrator, is the one who discovers the child's lifeless body buried beneath a pile of leaves by the side of the road. Fittingly dressed in an angel costume, little Sarah appears to be the victim of a hit-and-run accident.

When high school football star Kyle Johnson, the struggling town's bright shining hope, is named as the prime suspect in the accident, Lawrence becomes the key player in a cover-up designed to absolve Kyle of any wrongdoing. Promised a promotion to police chief by the crooked mayor, Lawrence initially goes along with the scheme. But as his unease intensifies, he is determined to discover the truth about what happened. In Lawrence, Collins has fashioned a complex character who struggles with demons of his own. Divorced and dealing with the remarriage of his wife and custodial loss of his young son, Lawrence leads a solitary and booze-soaked existence. With his spare and haunting prose, Collins skillfully creates parallels between the undoing of the town and Lawrence's own emotional downslide. The Irish-born Collins, whose past works include the Booker Prize-shortlisted novel The Keepers of Truth, writes adeptly about a corrupt American culture. You may not want to live in Collins' version of small-town USA, but this literary visit is a dark, page-turning pleasure.

Rebecca Krasney Stropoli lives in New York City.

 

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