Friday, January 27, 2012

Chris Fabry's "Not in the Heart"


I’m a fan of Chris Fabry’s novels. I loved Dogwood (2009), and thoroughly enjoyed June Bug (2010) and Almost Heaven (2011). All three are set in Fabry’s home state of West Virginia (although June Bug is more based than set there), and all three reflect a common theme – that of redemption. Fabry is such a good writer that you can almost inhale the mountain air as you read.

His fourth novel, Not in the Heart, is a departure, at least in setting. The place is Florida, and mostly Tallahassee. Truman Wiley, a celebrated but currently unemployed broadcast journalist, is facing a major family crisis. His 18-year-old son Aidan is in the hospital, facing certain death without a heart transplant. A donor exists, but he’s on Florida’s death row, awaiting execution for the murder of a woman. The inmate, Terrelle Conley, has become a Christian in prison, and he wants to donate his heart.

Ellen Wiley, Truman’s wife, persuades him to write Terrelle’s story; the Conley family is providing $15,000 to support the effort. Truman is persuaded, and as he develops the story comes to understand that Conley may be innocent. If he is, then there’s no donor for Aidan.

Truman Wiley is an unusual hero, at least for a Fabry novel. For the first third of the novel, he’s thoroughly despicable. Unable to face his son’s medical problems, he’s abandoned the family. He’s addicted to gambling. He cares more for his cat than for his children. He’s estranged from his daughter. He’s on the run from bill collectors and a mob figure to whom he owes a lot of money, but true to his addiction, he promptly blows the $15,000 at a local casino. In fact, for most of the novel, the only attractive thing about him is his ability to work and to write.

Fabry has drawn the character of Truman Wiley so dark that at times the only thing that kept me reading the book was sympathy for the character of Aidan. That and the fact that Fabry is a fine writer. He’s described what gambling addiction can do, and it’s very difficult to feel any sympathy for the character. I had to keep asking myself the question, does this kind of addiction mean you avoid a teen-aged son on his death bed, a son who’s repeatedly asking for you? I don’t know the answer, but at times the character of the hero seemed too much. Perhaps my problem is that I haven’t personally known people with that kind of addiction, or with any kind of problem severe enough to keep them from a dying child.

What I did like is how Fabry overlays a tragic family story on the politics of prisoner executions. The governor needs a confession of guilt before he will move forward on the appeal for the heart donation. That the governor has announced his candidacy for the presidency becomes a politically complicating factor, and Fabry does a good job in showing how politics and personal ambition can affect the lives of so many people, including innocent people.

Not in the Heart is, like Fabry’s other novels, a story ultimately about redemption. It has the author’s signature “how on earth are you going to resolve that problem in the story?” conundrum, and it rings true. But it is a very hard story to read.


(Note: I was provided an e-galley of this book by the publisher’s agent for review purposes.)