In David Abbott’s first novel, The Upright Piano, Henry Cage is a careful man, persistent, successful, frequently kind. He has high standards but from them derives his great failing, a quickness to judge and thereby condemn.
He founds a management advisory firm that makes him a small fortune, but his partners push him out over his unwillingness to take on unsavory clients. He marries a beautiful and spirited woman, but he refuses to forgive an infidelity and casts her away. He has a sensitive and loving son, but they became estranged over his divorce.
Like the old piano Cage has kept from his youth, he is both upright and out of tune. Or in Abbott’s spare prose, “He had arrived at Gate Retirement without itinerary, ticket, or passport.”
Cage’s fate in the isolation he has himself created is a testament to Nemesis, the Greek goddess of retribution. His former wife is seriously ill. His son conceals a wife and child. An accidental encounter with a loutish petty criminal leads to a series of harassing acts. Every step he takes in remedy turns back upon him. No deed, good or bad, goes unpunished. For the self-righteous and self-satisfied, Abbott’s masterful account of a good man brought to his knees will resound like a prophetic admonishing: “At last, blame had been apportioned.”
Keith Scribner has written another kind of cautionary tale in The Oregon Experiment. Scanlon Pratt has his doctorate in political science from New York University, with a specialty in mass movements and radical action. His “trailing spouse,” Naomi, is a New York fragrance designer, and she is heavily pregnant with their first child. After a series of temporary positions in the northeast, he finally has the offer of a tenure-track appointment - at Douglas University, in rural Oregon.
An unwritten rule of academia is that the smaller the institution and the more remote its location, the stranger its environment and the weirder its faculty. Once at Douglas, these east coasters are lost in so many ways. Yet the area is also home to the Pacific Northwest Secessionist Movement, whose members advocate breaking away from Oregon and the United States to form their own mini-nation. Pratt recognizes that here is a research project by which to make his reputation and perhaps escape from the timber wilds.
Too late, he also realizes that getting close to anarchists might be dangerous: “You’re all no destruction till you want something busted up.” Scribner’s plot is unpredictable and his characters deadly accurate. Reading The Oregon Experiment should be mandatory before applying to graduate school.
Bill Loehfelm’s The Devil She Knows is a third novel of circumspection, this one a morality play wrapped around a thriller. Maureen Coughlin is almost 30, a college dropout who gets drunk too often, uses a little cocaine, sleeps around, and has reached her career potential as a cocktail waitress in a seamy bar on Staten Island. She knows who she is - “this is what happens when you spend more time reading coffee mugs than you do books.” - and what she looks like - “slumped shoulders. . . cornflake-colored hair frayed at the ends. . . . A winter scarecrow that bleeds hay every time she moves.”
One night after closing, Maureen sees what she was not meant to see, an encounter involving Frank Sebastian, rumored crime boss and candidate for the New York state senate. She goes to ground, but people she knows die one after another. A grizzled police detective with a score to settle against Sebastian takes her side. And Maureen concludes that if she is a scarecrow, she ought at least to be scary.
Loehfelm grew up on Staten Island before moving to New Orleans. He knows its streets and its people. Like too many thrillers, his novel is at its best in the first hundred or so pages and afterward tries to maintain the tension through a series of ever less credible perils. He redeems himself with the portrait of Maureen Coughlin, who first saunters and then runs out of his pages as a supremely realized character. Loehfelm would do well to bring her back in his next book.