Book Club review: The Life We Bury

February 2016 Zion Book Club
The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

blog by Cindy Bushey

Reading a good book and eating a delicious meal have a great deal in common. Especially when done in a gathering. Preparing a meal requires sharp knives, eating the meal requires delicately slicing or ravenously tearing the meat to consume it, and after the meal a pleasant digestion of its various components leads to a feeling of gustatory satisfaction. Well, Zion’s readers came to our February meeting with their mental knives sharpened in anticipation of carving Allen Eskens’s debut novel The Life We Bury into digestible portions for enjoyable discussion. One of the benefits of long-standing membership in a readers’ group is a grasp of the members’ interests, likes, and dislikes when it comes to entertaining literature. Therefore, members can dispense with introductory give-and-take while jumping right into, ahem, vocal critical analysis of the book selection. This can be a bit disconcerting for any newcomer (of which we had several in the last few months and would welcome more) feeling charitable toward the newbie author! Just be aware that books engender strong feelings, and Zion’s readers are always ready to express those feelings while pointing out where the author could improve.

The Life We Bury is a fast-paced, interesting look at a series of decisions made by Joe Talbert, a young college student, as he tries to leave his troubled childhood behind him. With his father not in the picture, his mother bi-polar, selfish and self-focused, his autistic brother bearing the brunt of his mother’s anger, Joe is trying to balance work, studies, worry, and guilt about his grandfather’s death– a full plate by any standards. Our readers understood why Joe cannot bury this life even though he keeps trying. A college assignment to interview an elderly person leads him to a convicted murderer in a nursing home waiting to die from cancer. In spite of himself, Joe is drawn to the belief that Carl Iverson is innocent of the heinous crime for which he has been imprisoned 30 years. With optimism, he decides to find proof for overturning the conviction but wants to succeed before Iverson dies. Iverson is a Viet Nam vet haunted by events that happened during the war and which he tried to bury with alcohol. Joe enlists the help of his neighbor, Lila Nash, who lives across the hall, is also a college student, and for whom Joe has more than neighborly feelings.

It is revealed through the plot that Lila is also trying to bury a past where she ran wild and loose in high school. Mr. Eskens seems to revel in characters with broken backgrounds as every person in the book seeks to bury some aspect of past lives. Not many are sympathetic, some are evil, and all make choices with long-reaching consequences. Perhaps the author is not so subtly pointing out that all of us have things we try to conceal, but at times it seems like he went shopping in a grocery store and pulled one of every type of character off the shelf as one of our readers put it. Some are overdrawn, and many are aral. His plot veers along from one implausible situation to another and yet was extremely entertaining and held our readers’ interest. The most bloodthirsty among us were thrilled with the deaths and violence peppered throughout the book, including a reader who “loved it when Joe beat people up” (turns out being a bouncer in a bar gives you a wonderful education of how to do that!). Solving the original murder rests on decoding the victim’s teenage diary, another implausible twist on a number of levels – what teenage girl uses a code in a locked diary, and wasn’t it amazing that the autistic brother should solve the code?

Joe heedlessly confronts the villain and fights his way back from certain death with the ingenuity of MacGyver (a television series that ran in the late 1980’s) and then implausibly goes back for more rather than having the police handle it. Of course, Lila gets kidnapped by the villain, a plot twist all our readers predicted. And therein lies a great deal of our criticism. Most of the plot is predictable, characters are stereotypical, the author is pointedly prodding the readers to consider what lives they bury and how quick they are to judge others. He over-reaches with his description and character development. Our readers mused about the lack of original stories and the difficulty for new authors to make their work refreshingly new. Mr. Eskens chose to grab every possible character and cram them into one book. And he passes up the opportunity to tell a very different story. As one of our readers said, there were really two plot lines here. The author could have concentrated on conversations between Joe and Carl about Iverson’s war experiences and how veterans deal with post-traumatic stress. That would have been a very believable book, but perhaps Mr. Eskens felt it had already been done to death with My Lai and various other atrocities already revealed. Instead he focused on the young hero avenging a wrong and emerging victorious after overcoming incredible obstacles. Joe gets the girl, saves his brother, and even snags a reward – all very improbable, implausible, and still a great story that our readers thoroughly enjoyed. In fact, one reader has already reserved Mr. Eskens’s second novel at the library. So while Zion’s readers tore apart the author’s first endeavor, we found it easily digestible and are willing to dine again at the same table while heartily recommending the meal to others. In keeping with our new method of voting, we had four readers give The Life We Bury a knuckle, nine give it one thumb up, and one reader give it one thumb up plus a knuckle! With all its implausibility, we LIKED this book. Hope the author keeps cooking up new offerings.