Fresh from his 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist novel, The Bright Forever, Lee Martin has produced a frank and convincing story of the toll that a long-buried secret exacts on the life of one unremarkable man. Blending an intense character study with classic elements of mysteries and thrillers, Martin demonstrates that the success of his last novel was no accident.
Sam Brady is a 65-year-old gay man, retired and living quietly with his dog Stump in the small town of Mt. Gilead, Illinois. Beneath this placid surface lies a painful secret surrounding his involvement in the apparent suicide of his boyhood friend, Dewey Finn, on the town's railroad tracks 50 years ago. When Sam's brother Cal, who slipped effortlessly out of Sam's life years earlier, returns to Mt. Gilead after playing a seemingly heroic role in a hostage standoff, the pressure increases on Sam to reveal the truth about the night Dewey died and the relationship between the two friends that led to the tragedy. The mystery surrounding Cal only deepens when Sam suspects his brother has been involved with a domestic terrorist group plotting to blow up Chicago's Sears Tower.
For a novel of fewer than 300 pages, River of Heaven is intricately plotted, the pace of its story accelerating to a powerful climax. As befits a novelist of his skill, Martin doesn't sacrifice his attention on Sam merely to create a page-turning story. In an emotionally resonant ending we learn what happened to Dewey Finn on that long-ago April night and sense the faint stirrings of a redemptive end to Sam's life.
From the Martha Stewart wannabe Vera Moon to an improbably named student journalist Duncan Hines, Martin's characters are quaint without degenerating into provincial archetypes. Instead, like other novelists who've made small-town America their canvas, he is skilled at revealing the complexity that entangles even the simplest of lives.
Martin is an able storyteller who doesn't need to resort to flashy verbal tricks to establish his credibility as a writer of literary fiction. In River of Heaven he's created an accomplished and deeply satisfying work.