Post Road Magazine #1

Recommendation: Keith Scribner's, The Goodlife

by Douglas Bauer

In Keith Scribner’s first novel, The GoodLife, he draws two quite despicable characters so sympathetically that readers come to fully understand, if not endorse, their ill-intentioned ambitions. Such complex sympathy is a difficult and necessary responsibility of story telling and Scribner meets it with a touch that’s at the same time deft and vivid.

The GoodLife features a kidnapping which goes pathetically awry, thanks to the breathtaking incompetence of the improbable plotters, Colleen Wolkoviak and her especially hapless husband, Theo, a middle-aged couple with two young children who’ve written for themselves a rueful history of bad business schemes and bankruptcy. Theo is the kind of guy whose can’t-miss ideas include an automatic ball-tossing machine for dogs. “The dog learns to drop the ball in the receptor, then — thup! — off he goes chasing it . . . Just plug it in, forget throwing out your arm on a drool-soaked tennis ball.” Except that, as his wife reminds him, “‘For one [thing], the dog wants the attention of his master, and for two, he likes his master’s scent.”

As the novel opens, Colleen and Theo’s increasingly desperate dream to claim a share of, yes, the good life has led them to rationalize the kidnapping of a rich oil executive for ransom as nothing more than an act of particularly ingenious entrepeneurship. Thinks Colleen: “[They] were earning their place among the great businesspeople of America. It was the Trumps, the Iacoccas, the Perots, Ted Turner and Jane Fonda . . . who were the great Americans. How many people knew the name . . . of last year’s Nobel Prize winner in . . . anything?” (The novel, though a chillingly serious account, is, as these quotations suggest, laced with moments of mordant comedy.)

But if Colleen and Theo are acutely susceptible to this kind of thinking, Scribner suggests that they are not unusually so. His witless schemers are neither larger nor smaller than life. They are, instead, vivid incarnations of life, of the empty amoral life that presently surrounds us, insisting that everyone is, not just a candidate for, but entitled to, the baubles and mindless excess that define success in America. Yet, Scribner conveys this message without striking a single heavy-handed, propagandistic note, for the novel’s energy emanates subtly and unwaveringly from within his palpably human characters, whom he regards critically but never condescendingly.

Much as the publication of this novel should be applauded, I think its publisher has in a way done it a disservice for describing it on its jacket as “an engrossing thriller”, implying as it does a story reduced to the generic, however well crafted. I’m sure its marketers wanted to emphasize the The GoodLife’s page-turning quality, which it certainly has. But not only is it far more complex and texturally rich than any thriller, it’s more so than any serious literary novel I’ve read recently.

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