Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Tommy Gunn's School Daze

Laurie R. King, Lockdown: a Novel of Suspense

Career day at Guadalupe Middle School will make or break Principal Linda McDonald. After turning a failing school around, Linda has managed to corral enough community members to remind her students they have a future. For one day, they’ll forget their personal dramas, the pains festering at home, and the two criminal investigations lingering at the margins, and celebrate their potentials. Too bad somebody’s coming to school with a gun.

The dust-flap synopsis on Laurie R. King’s newest standalone novel is slightly misleading. Though the story promises a violent schoolyard confrontation, the anticipated explosion doesn’t actually arrive for over 300 pages. Rather, King places the emphasis on the buildup, the suspense as a school of over seven hundred students simmers. We know something’s coming. We’re left to wonder not what, but who, and why. Because King offers multiple suspects.

Principal McDonald has shepherded her school through several powerful conflicts in her first year. A well-liked, but possibly abused, student has disappeared, leaving behind a best friend pitching conspiracy theories pinched from Doctor Who. A high-school gangland murder drags the middle school in because the only witness was one of McDonald’s students. And that’s just the problems McDonald can see. She has multiple cauldrons waiting to boil over.

There’s the kid harboring a nasty grudge and carrying something in his backpack so powerful, he can’t bring himself to think about it directly. The beautiful but damaged teen desperate to escape the stultifying strictures her political refugee parents place upon her. The principal’s husband, always fleeing his personal demons. The wannabe gang-banger desperate to prove his chops. And the janitor, known only as Tío, carrying a bloody secret.

Laurie R. King
Guadalupe MS, in the (fictional) agricultural community of San Felipe, California, has dozens of conflicting forces pushing on its students. They come from a mix of economic, racial, and cultural backgrounds: poor Hispanic migrant workers and software developers send their children to one school. Also fugitives fleeing poorly defined threats, and working families hoping to shield their children from gangs. Add heat, and watch the chaotic combination boil.

Our story unfolds, minute by minute. King offers us glimpses into different viewpoint characters’ heads, so we see the same events from multiple contexts. What one character considers a flippant comment, another perceives as an insufferable slight. Principal McDonald has at least two opportunities to deflect the looming violence, but misses them because she can’t read students’ minds. Characters live in their own brains, never knowing how close they miss.

This, King implies, is the theme of life in public society: everyone thinks their personal dramas are unique. Especially in middle school, with the simmering pressures of looming adulthood, every character sees their own conflicts, and doesn’t realize others have the same. King only addresses this indirectly, as when her wannabe gangster thinks the beautiful girls have life easy. But it’s constantly present: everyone has problems nobody else sees.

The front cover calls this “A Novel of Suspense,” which isn’t inaccurate: we know something catastrophic will happen, changing characters’ lives forever. But this isn’t like bog-standard procedurals or action potboilers. King offers an overlapping matrix of character dramas, inviting us to tease out secrets and layers. The suspense comes from wondering which of the many private controversies will eventually spill over into public violence.

King is most famous for writing novels starring Mary Russell and an obscure supporting character named Sherlock Holmes. The publisher bills this as King’s first standalone novel in over a decade. But even that isn’t entirely accurate, since there’s a brief chapter linking this novel to King’s lesser-known series protagonist, SFPD detective Kate Martinelli. It’s a fun teaser, but one needn’t know King’s prior works to appreciate this story.

If this novel suffers one shortcoming, King introduces so many characters, with their own private plotlines, that she can’t possibly defuse them all. We know, with the bloody climax coming, that King can’t resolve both the miscommunication between the clique of insecure pretty girls, and Tío’s attempt to save the gangbanger from his myths. King starts multiple interesting stories which remain unfinished. Maybe she’s saving something for the sequel.

Nevertheless, she does a remarkable job displaying not only the causes of life-changing violence, but the lives that will be changed. Middle school is a crucible, even when literal blood doesn’t spill, a dark and brooding place where everyone thinks they suffer alone. And, as we read, we realize: maybe we aren’t so different from these kids ourselves. Which is actually a liberating thought.

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