Friday, October 16, 2015

Alex Kava's Dark Night of the Writer's Soul

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 59
Alex Kava, One False Move

Mystery novelist Andrew Kane has created national bestselling potboilers by working hand-in-glove with Omaha police and top-ranked attorneys. His stories of humanity’s depraved depths have received praise for their gritty realism, psychological insight, and taut pacing. But Andrew feels he’s grown stale. So he reserves a cabin at Platte River State Park, planning to re-evaluate his writing. He cannot know a released convict with dark ambitions is hiding out nearby.

One needn’t employ complex Freudian analysis to recognize that Andrew Kane represents popular Omaha novelist Alex Kava’s introspective turn. Just four years into a popular thriller-writing career, Kava, who initially chose a gender-neutral pseudonym to break into publishing (her real name is Sharon), felt trapped by the industry’s demands for reliable sales bait. This, her first freestanding novel, represents both a marked rebellion, and a return to her genre’s roots.

Jared Barnett should be awaiting execution. A crooked lawyer and coerced testimony have gotten him sprung, returning him to streets unprepared for him. Charming, intelligent, and narcissistic, Jared has remarkable influence over many people, including his grifter sister Melanie Starks and her teenage son Charlie. When Jared begins making demands upon his terrified sister, she finds herself making horrible justifications. Like for taking a gentle, defenseless novelist hostage.

Kava’s story draws heavily upon her Nebraska heritage. Not only in its physical locations—the park where Andrew Kane retreats is very real, as is the bank Jared and Melanie rob, and the winding route they follow, fleeing police, across the state, captive Andrew in tow—but also its cultural references. Considering Jared’s affable, murderous inclinations, is it surprising his sister’s named Starks? As in Starkweather?

Alex Kava
Indeed, one could make a drinking game of spotting Nebraska references in Kava’s story. Besides Charles Starkweather, observant readers will recognize bank robber Duane Earl Pope, and the notorious Beatrice Six case. Her afterword cites two bank robberies in Lincoln and Norfolk, Nebraska, during her early writing career. Even the open-road, fugitive motif, familiar from Springsteen’s Nebraska album and Terrence Malick’s movie Badlands, are quintessentially Plains-based.

Deeper themes emerge, however, in the repeated, sometimes lengthy conversations between Andrew Kane and Jared Barnett. The actual criminal, a confessed murderer whose relative liberty stems from his ability to game the system, offers criticism and pointers to the guy whose job it is to invent fictional crimes that feel realistic but have drama. Actual crime may be charming and destructive, but it proves itself remarkably banal.

Jared’s power over his sister and nephew is itself remarkable. Raised amid violence and neglect, Jared and Melanie never had a chance. But where Melanie pursues nickel-and-dime crime because it’s all she knows, Jared embraces the lifestyle of violence. And Melanie’s son Charlie, still not formally an adult, commits crimes because he doesn’t understand why it’s wrong. (Though Melanie mentions Charlie’s father, a history between Jared and Melanie is implied.)

I first read this novel over a decade ago, when it first came out, and was mildly impressed, though it didn’t strike me as revolutionary. However, rereading it now, after discovering anthropologist Richard J. Perry and addictionist Gabor Maté, I realize how profound Kava’s insights into human behavior actually are. Her writings predate the revolution in epigenetic sciences, but accurately reflect current beliefs about how environment shapes human nature.

Humans aren’t born evil, or good. Epigenetic force all around shape us, forces that mold and warp not only our bodies, but also our brain structures. Scratch an alcoholic, philanderer, or gambling addict, and below the surface, you’ll discover some form of abuse that shaped a person’s early life. Adaptations that kept that child safe and sane become destructive in adulthood. Childhood nurturance or violence manifests itself in surprising ways.

Jared Barnett receives his childhood abuse, accepts it, and doubles down. Melanie Starks resists. And Charlie Starks sees that his uncle’s charm—which masks an innate passivity to influence—looks easier than his mother’s struggle. The Barnett-Starks family represents a battle between free will and determinism. Thrust into this battle, Andrew Kane represents the stories we tell ourselves, attempting to justify whatever choice we make.

On its surface, Kava’s novel mixes an open-road fugitive drama, the kind of story mystery readers have seen repeatedly, with the same quality of authorial self-examination we’ve encountered recently in Stephen King and James Patterson. Deeper down, though, Kava questions what makes us really human. Those questions aren’t necessarily obvious, possibly even to Kava herself. However, once spotted, those questions seize our throats, and don’t let us go easily.

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