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"switterbug" Betsey Van Horn
- Published on Amazon.com
A provocative thriller will fasten a reader to the proverbial edge of the seat, either by laying a trail of clues to "whodunit" or leading us on a mad and oscillating cat-and-mouse chase through the landscape of the novel. In the case of Urban Waite's contemporary, reflective and rousing cat-and-mouse debut, I was glued to the pages of perilous pursuit and quickened by the torn and haunted rogue heroes--Deputy Bobby Drake, and ex-convict and owner of a struggling horse farm, Phil Hunt.
There's the law (Drake), the lawless (Grady), and then there is that equivocal and tarnished outlaw, Hunt--the name brimming with metaphor--whose reckoning is tethered to Drake's by plaited doubts and dark obstacles reaching back to a coiled and inextricable past. In short, they are each other's nemesis. The wives in this story are resolute and strong, providing a mirror for the reader to reflect on their moody tormented husbands. The northwest territory of Washington State becomes its own penetrating and terrifying, living character.
In the mountain wilderness passes between Washington and Canada, drug smuggling is a lot more challenging than it used to be, now that boundary crossing between Canada and the U.S. requires a passport and the roads are policed. Bricks of cocaine dropped from planes in the blue-black night below the high treetops and picked up by horseback, as well as human "mules" carrying condoms full of heroin implanted by ingestion, are the methods used to foil the law.
In the near-opening pages, newly married Deputy Drake, on his day off, sights Hunt's abandoned horse trailer on the logging roads of Silver Lake and suspects an imminent transaction. He camps out and waits, haunted by memories, by the ghost of family history. Drake's father, a once formidable sheriff, is serving time in prison. He supplemented his earnings as a drug courier, as Hunt is doing now. Hunt's wife, Nora, is not too keen on her husband's extracurricular activities, but their love is a firm and unalloyed bedrock that never diminishes. Hunt's curled past as a convict is something for the reader to discover, a piece of information that is teased out and explored over the course of the novel, magnifying the psychological heft of this better-than-genre story. Hunt's demons correlate Drake's, and propel them and the story.
The plot mobilizes early on when Drake comes face to face with Hunt and Hunt's young rookie in the midst of collecting the goods. Phil is a skilled horseman who escapes, but the "kid" is apprehended and suffers a gruesome fate in jail. The chase proceeds with a measured pace, hypnotic and bracing. The dead bodies pile up, thanks to the main supplier's lackey, Grady, a former chef and sociopathic killer on the trail of Hunt and Drake alike.
Rounding out the cast are DEA agent and straight shooter, Driscoll, working with Drake; "the lawyer" (nameless) and drug deal maker; Hunt's long time friend, Eddie; Bobby Drake's perceptive wife, Sheri; and an array of cold-blooded, one-dimensional thugs. Then there's the female mule, Thu, a Vietnamese women who lives in Seattle. The thugs and mule are necessary to the plot, but the theme is amply filled by the invisible relationship between Drake and Hunt.
I was additionally impressed by the nuanced juxtaposition of Sheri and Nora, and how they counterpoint Drake and Hunt. Phil is used to Nora's capacity to know his essential nature. Drake, a newlywed, still grapples with Sheri's tacit understanding of his confused motives. The counterpoint between the two marriages was lightly but substantively rendered, endowing the book with weighty subtext that accumulates as the story progresses. This was a testosterone-infused novel, and yet, in the final assessment, it is the women who impel their men.
Waite may not have broken the mold in this somber thriller, but he deftly contributed his own achievement. The spiritual struggle between good and bad is a conventional theme that the author probed with a fresh eye. There were a few scene contrivances to advance the plot, but they did not distract from this taut, intense story.
The prose is stark and shadowy, lambent and sensuous, weaving in the geography of the northwest so ably that I heard the wind like a susurrus whisper--and sometimes a howl--through the trees, and I lurched through the snaking roads. There are tendrils of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, but less antediluvian, and Waite, at this juncture, is not as seasoned. But I did relish at some of the turns of event that will inevitably be compared to McCarthy's work, and I suspect that Waite deliberately paid a nodding homage--as evidenced by the character (although minor) identified as "the kid" (viz. Blood Meridian, but with a lower-case "k"). Some readers may decry it as essentially formulaic, but that would be a limited view. What makes this novel stand out is the ethereal prose and the ever-strengthening bond between Hunt and Drake.
The events in this book are graphic, explicit and occasionally disturbing, but with a controlled restraint. There's also a choice twist on the Mexican standoff. For squeamish readers, this is a fair warning that the novel isn't for the faint of heart or for readers who abhor violence in literature. This was executed like a noir-western-opera-suspense-drama-slash-thriller fusion, with a harmonic equipoise of physical action and interior torment. The story is a hybrid brew of nihilism and romanticism, summoning a cauldron of terror and stirring it with an ache and longing for tranquility.