by Allen Eskens
The Life We Bury – which I kept thinking could have been subtitled “Confessions” for all of the various characters’ deep secrets that are slowly revealed – centers around college student Joe Talbert, who narrates, and Carl Iverson, a Vietnam vet and convicted murderer.
Joe, a complex character in his own right, is attempting to escape his bipolar, alcoholic, abusive mother, and to an extent, his autistic brother, Jeremy. He is managing to attend college and pay for it by the skin of his teeth, determined not to become just another casualty of his family’s dysfunction. Not surprisingly, though, Joe can’t seem to shake completely free; he continues to be reeled back, mostly by his loyalty to and feelings of responsibility for Jeremy.
Assigned to write the biography of an interesting person for his college English class, Joe, destitute of family members beyond his mother and brother, heads to a local nursing home, hoping to find a willing subject. The staff grudgingly directs him to the home’s only resident who doesn’t have dementia or Alzheimer’s: Carl Iverson, a frail, sickly, solitary figure who sits in a wheelchair staring out a window. Carl has served thirty years in prison for the rape and murder of a fourteen-year old girl, and has been released on medical parole because he is quickly dying of pancreatic cancer. Carl agrees to be interviewed by Joe, and to be the subject of his writing assignment. He calls this his “dying declaration”: an opportunity to clear his conscience and confess the truth before he dies.
As Joe interviews Carl over the course of several weeks, as well as talking to the one living friend Carl has and pouring over newspaper accounts of the thirty-year old brutal rape and murder of a beautiful young girl, the incongruities in Carl’s wartime valor and the heinous crime he was convicted of grow ever larger and more disturbing. What really happened? Joe aims to find out, with the help of Lila Nash, the neighbor with whom Joe finds himself falling in love. Lila, by the way, has her own skeletons.
I love a novel that sucks me in and won’t let me go, and I find it even more satisfying when that novel is an author’s debut. This story is so vividly imagined and well written – full of unexpected twists and complex characters who are both valiant and flawed in their humanity. If some of the plot twists are somewhat unlikely, they can be forgiven for the sheer buttery smoothness with which the story is propelled towards a very satisfying end.
I will definitely be reading more by this author.