Purgatory Chasm by Steve Ulfelder

So, I got a message from a friend of mine who lives out of town. “You, like, read, right?” My friend asked. (I’m being hugely unfair here in my characterization of Emily; she and I have swapped many a book.) Turns out, Steve Ulfelder is a friend of her husband’s from college, and he was going to be here in Minneapolis doing press for the newest book in this series, Shotgun Lullaby, and maybe I’d be interested in checking out the signing? Sure, I said, because even though mysteries are pretty far out of my reading interest, I’m game. I like playing desultory ambassador of my city. Plus, it gave me an excuse to visit in Once Upon a Crime, a mystery bookstore which is walking distance from the house I grew up in, but (because of my reading proclivities) I’ve never steeped foot in.

Boy, what a cute little bookstore: pin-neat, well-curated, with a large section of local mysteries festooned with signed stickers and little hand-written notes. It’s the kind of place that I suspect will close when the aging proprietors – who were incredibly chatty and informative – retire, and it will not be replaced. I would like us all to pour some out to the fading animal that are the corner bookstores. I’m still stinging from the loss of Orr Books, and I would like to extend a middle finger to the people who tore down and evicted that entire block so they could put in a piece of shit furniture store made out of tick-tack and coolness. They don’t make brownstones or bookstores like that anymore, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.

But before I start frothing at the mouth about city politics and preservation, I should probably remember I’m trying to write a book review. I ended up talking to the small collection of folk at the signing. There were the proprietors, and Ulfelder, a smattering of non-talkers, and a dude who might have been some kind of publishing flack? I demurred that I knew next to nothing about the mystery genre, which prompted pretty fantastic sermonettes from all and sundry about the various sub-genres, and some cool observations about genre jumping and the like. It sounded a lot like conversations I’ve haddelivering the sermonette about science fiction, but with wholly different referents and traditions. You may not be my people, mystery readers, but I pound my heart at you.

Conway Sax in Purgatory Chasm is one of those dudes whose wallets undoubtedly is emblazoned with the words bad motherfucker, who, I would not be surprised to learn, occasionally rode a shark into a volcano once or twice in his drinking days. He’s ten years into sobriety, a meeting-after-the-meeting member of an AA group known as the Barnburners. Started as a non-national-charter AA group for badasses and ex-cons, it’s since neatened up and gone national, but not entirely. Conway’s been an enforcer over the years for Barnburner business, and half-sketched kneecappings and even a manslaughter two conviction dot his past. When a Barnburner asks for help, Conway provides it.

So when Tander Phigg, congenital asshole and Barnburner, asks Sax with help getting his Mercedes back from a second rate auto outfit, Sax steps up. It’s all super sketchy, Sax doesn’t trust anything Phigg says for a second, and it all turns into a big mess pretty fast. Sax was a NASCAR also-ran – before the drinking ruined his career – and a mechanic afterwards, and one of the funnest parts of this novel, for me, was the industry insider observations about cars, customers, how the car trade works, and the like. I work in the building trades, and while my cast of characters is slightly different, there are still a fair number of anecdotes that sound like bullshit when I go to tell them.

I once knew a dude named Sean – and I swear on a pile of bibles this is true – who had an identical twin brother named Shawn. They pronounced Sean as seen to differentiate. Every day he listened diligently to KQ92 because he and his brother always put in for some daily contest thing. When I asked how he would know they were reading his name and not his brother’s, he was like, I don’t follow you. I didn’t rephrase. Good luck, Sean pronounced seen. There’s some folk like this, and some more ordinary folk, and they rub up against each other in a plot. It’s cool. I like the idiomatic style and the badassery.

I also liked the Boston / New Hampshire locale, which, given my limited dealings with the area, felt kinda accurate to the social milieu. There’s maybe way too much driving around, but then when you’re dealing with NH, state-shaped suburb of Boston, that’s probably accurate too. I spent some time laughing and shuddering about the NH survivalist brothers, as they were more or less my in-laws’ neighbors for a while in rural New Hampshire. Live free or die, man. I was less enamored by all the daddy crises in the book – Conway’s own deal with his dad felt…maybe forced is the wrong word, let’s call it shoehorned – but then, as I’ve noted, I’ve never had the bother of being a boy growing into a man and all. I did appreciate all the declensions of recovery – many of the players are alcoholics in various relationships to the wagon, and there’s this low-grade conversation about how that all works, or doesn’t.

Anyway, so I’m glad Emily dropped me a line, and I’m glad I read this. It turned out I can like this hard-boiled business, because I like profanity-laced choppy prose about fuckups and weirdos that isn’t trying too hard. It did me right fine for a Sunday porch read.

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