In Shotgun Lullaby by Steve Ulfelder, Conway Sax must help a recovering substance abuser who reminds him a little too much of his estranged son (available May 14, 2013).
The third Conway Sax novel by Steve Ulfelder opens with Conway beating down a guy over a lemon car sold to a new Barnburner, one Gus Biletnikov. In other words, Conway’s still acting as a half-assed investigator-slash-enforcer for the special group of AA members he credits with saving his life. And he’s still doing it with his perfect blend of heart, gruff, and bullheaded luck.
A long time ago, after more tries than you could count, I ﬁnally put together some sobriety. A couple of months, my longest dry stretch since I was fourteen.
It was awful. I didn’t know what I was doing. My knuckles were white, my teeth were ground to nubs, my nightmares lasted all day.
It was slipping away, and I knew it. I was feeling shame already over the next backslide. Had a feeling it would be the last one, the one that carried me all the way down.
And then I stumbled into a Barnburners meeting.
They were different. You saw it the minute you stepped into the basement at Saint Anne’s. The old-timers arranged fifteen or so chairs jury-style, so they could watch the speaker at the podium and keep an eye on the crowd, too. Anybody who spoke or laughed or sneaked out for a smoke earned a dirty look or a little talking-to. I learned that night the Barnburners’ watchword was “serious AA for serious people.”
Soon enough, I would learn more. The Barnburners were born after World War II of a bizarre wreck between AA, which was new at the time, and a vigilante biker group—combat veterans who trusted nobody but fellow dogfaces and took a blood oath to watch each other’s backs.
Barnburners take care of Barnburners. And the small Meeting After the Meeting crowd runs the show.
At its heart, though, Shotgun Lullaby is a book about family, biological and otherwise. And the Barnburners are definitely a kind of family. They look out for one another. They take care of each other’s problems. And they hold one another accountable.
The night Butch Feeley told me to stick around for the Meeting After the Meeting was and is the best night of my life. My silent vow: I would do anything this crowd asked me to.
And I do.
And I take the weight that comes with it.
Mary Giarusso—Switchboard Mary, gossip queen, organizer of events, keeper of the telephone tree—patted the bench next to her.
A ninety-two-year-old Barnburner who got confused easily had been ripped off by gypsy roofers. They’d squeezed him for eight thousand that he knew of, maybe more.
“Keeps it in a focking cigar box,” Carlos Q said. “I’ll take that one. Kick the shit out of these gypsies, then talk that fool into getting a savings account.”
“Isn’t that one more up my alley?” I said.
Most everybody looked at their hands or the picnic tables before them while Butch Feeley slipped Carlos Q a picture of the roofers’ license plate.
“What?” I said, picking up the vibe. They’d talked about me before I joined them. It was obvious.
Butch cleared his throat. “Whyn’t you sit this one out, Conway? Looks like your plate’s pretty full as it stands.”
I felt redness crawl up my neck. “I can handle both.”
“Don’t look to me like you can handle neither,” Carlos Q said, eye-locking me.
Conway is living with his girlfriend and her two kids, the oldest with an eating disorder, and her family is his family. He has an ex-wife he doesn’t really speak to and a grown son who won’t speak to him. It’s Roy, his son, who most has him feeling extra-loyal to Gus. Barnburners might look after Barnburners, but Gus hasn’t been with them that long. He’s only marginally one of theirs, but he looks too much like Roy. He does the things Conway wishes Roy still did—like riding dirt bikes with the old(er) man—but he also does some things Conway hopes to hell Roy doesn’t (namely the drugs that landed him in the Barnburners’ basement Meeting).
“Cokehead. Rehab kid. College kid. Big bullshitter. Probably doing AA because Daddy made him. I had to guess, I’d say he’ll quit the coke and drink like a ﬁsh for the next twenty years. Then he’ll come back to AA for real.”
“But you care about him a lot.”
I waved a hand. “I’m just helping out a Barnburner.”
“Nonsense.” She smiled.
“Okay. I like the kid. He’s got a heart. He’s scared. If he works at it, he could be a man.”
“What’s your next move? As if I didn’t know.”
“I need to ﬁgure out who’s got a problem with Gus.”
“And look into it.” She sighed as she spoke.
“Conway Sax takes in another stray.” She said it softly. “He reminds you of your son. You can admit it to me. You might even want to admit it to yourself.”
“Everybody’s a damn shrink.”
Which is why, when three people get gunned down at the Almost Home halfway house—one of them in Gus’s room—Conway wants to make sure Gus wasn’t the target. Which means getting into Gus’s life, meeting his family, and finding out that there are people who make Conway’s domestic difficulties look positively quaint. (Three words: “Spurnings and strikings.”)
Not everyone comes out better than when they went in, especially Conway, who does a few more things he shouldn’t but has to. Not everyone gets a happy ending, but then, most of these characters are aiming for hanging on, keeping it together, and getting by. By those standards, most of them come out on top and the ones that don’t? Some you’ll mourn. Others you’ll feel they had it coming. Kind of like family.
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Neliza Drew is a tofu-eating teacher and erratic reader with a soft spot for crime fiction. She lives in the heat and humidity of southern Florida with three cats and her adorable hubby. She listens to way too much music, writes often, and spends too much time on Twitter (@nelizadrew).
Read all posts by Neliza Drew on Criminal Element.