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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

RAVENS by George Dawes Green

Ravens by George Dawes Green
New York: Grand Central Publishing
$24.99 – 325 pages

When a friend sent me an advanced reading copy of Ravens with a note that said, “There is no one to like in this one,” I prepared myself for a dark and bleak journey through South Georgia grunge. That is exactly what I got, but “grim and gritty” is just the glue that holds this yarn together. George Dawes Green’s Ravens combines nightmare, humor, white-knuckle tension and a roller-coaster ride that never eases up. It has been a long time since I got my hands on a psychological thriller that captivated me like this one.

Dear reader, meet Romeo and Shaw, two drifters from Ohio (Romeo has a pistol; Shaw is psychotic) who are on their way to Key West, Florida with a vague plan to get jobs on a fishing boat, when a series of random events changes everything. First, somewhere in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Romeo runs over a possum that becomes lodged in the car’s fender well. Later, near Brunswick, Georgia, when the Toyota Tersel develops a shimmy and a bad smell, Romeo wakes his fellow passenger, Shaw, suggesting that they stop and check the tires. At a convenience store called Chummy’s, Shaw overhears a teenage clerk talking about a winning lottery ticket for $318,000,000. Shaw learns that the winning ticket belongs to a Brunswick family named Boatwright and he immediately develops a daring scheme: He and Romeo will hold the family hostage and demand half of the money.

At first, Shaw’s plan seems silly - especially since he seems to be making it up as he goes. However, within an hour, Shaw’s vague scheme has evolved into something complex, methodical and deadly. Shaw invades the Boatwright home and forces the father, Mitch Boatright to inform the lottery officials that he and Shaw are dual winners … and old friends. Concocting a story about their meeting at a crisis center where Mitch was a counselor, Shaw has a series of interviews with the media and begins to acquire the trappings of a cult hero – especially when he announces plans to give “his share” away.

In the meanwhile, Shaw has given Romeo a map with the homes of all of the Boatwright relatives marked on it. Romeo drives a continual circuit, enduring the stench of rotting possum (which he thinks is the pervasive smell of Brunswick). He is linked to Shaw with a cell phone. Romeo has instructions to call Shaw at specific intervals, and if Shaw fails to answer, Romeo is to start killing Boatwrights, including a grandmother, in-laws and close friends. “Just kill whoever is nearest,” instructs Shaw.

Eventually, the strange bond between Shaw and Romeo begins to acquire a deeper, disturbing character. Shaw is accustomed to assuming the role of leader while Romeo is the devoted servant, committed to performing his master’s orders without question. As Shaw attends press conferences, church services and rallies with the helpless family, the lonely, introverted Romeo continues to drive his endless circuit. Finding himself the center of attention and with a growing cult of admirers, Shaw becomes increasingly irrational and manic. Romeo, “the angel of death” with a .22 pistol, begins to feel abandoned and spirals toward self-destruction.

Perhaps what is most disturbing about Ravens is the alterations in the Boatwright family. Mitch, the father (and a religious man) becomes increasingly fatalistic and submissive;his alcoholic wife begins to fantasize, seeing Shaw as her future lover; Tara, the teenage daughter oscillates between sexual lust and a desire to murder Shaw; and Jase, the young son gradually becomes Shaw’s disciple, eager to supplant Romeo. For each character, the unrelenting tension and danger of their trapped lives forces them to confront their own unnatural fears and yearnings. Eventually, the Boatwright family and all of their friends willingly submit to Shaw’s control.

Although the foregoing details do not appear to be comic, Ravens has an abundance of dark humor. Finally, if the reader makes a few grudging concessions, there is even one character who qualifies as a hero … of sorts. Burris, the old, obese policeman, who is referred to as “Deputy Dawg” by his fellow officers, becomes suspicious and questions the clerk at Chummy’s. Despite the ridicule and contempt of his superiors, he launches an investigation of Shaw and Romeo. Ironically, when all of the other characters are filled with indecision, it is Deputy Dawg who perceives a way to bring peace and resolution to this kinky, terrifying tale.

Ravens, which will be published in July, 2009, has been “anticipated” for fourteen years. George Dawes Green published two prize-winning novels, The Caveman’s Valentine and The Juror in 1994-95. Then came this lengthy silence. Advanced critical response indicates that Ravens is well worth the wait.

29 comments:

  1. Wow. That sounds like an interesting novel. “CSI Miami” (the least creative spin-off of the “CSI” franchise) employed a similar plot line a few years ago but it lacked the complexity you describe in this novel. From your description I imagined a dash of Flannery O’Conner with a pinch of Stockholm Syndrome and a dab of Elmore Leonard. Certainly sounds worth checking out.

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  2. I just finished this book and really enjoyed it. Your review is fantastic.

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  3. Sounds pretty juicy and scary. Your review reminds me a bit of the recent movie "Funny Games."

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  4. Yeah, you are right. The American remake of "Funny Games" is just as terrifying and depressing as the original by that Austrian director, Haneke. There is one difference though. Ravens doesn't tease you with "false hope." After six Haneke movies, I have decided I don't like him.

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  5. Gary, you write the best reviews. You make me want to read every book you talk about even though I wouldn't pick it up on my own. I have such a stack that I intend to read that I'll never get to all of them, but then that's OK because I'll never stop reading. And I know you won't either.

    Marcianne

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  6. Thank you, Marcianne!
    I do love books and although people are always saying that you can't read too much, I'm not sure.
    I often feel that my constant reading has done more to alienate me from others than it has enriched me. I am a slow reader, too. I read pages over and over and sometimes go back to the beginning of a chapter and read it all again. For a while, I thought everyone did that. They don't. They read with the TV on or while they are talking on a cell phone.

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  7. Great review. It's nice to discover a writer I don't know. The story reminds me of the murder of a Haywood County family a few years ago. Two young men just passing through dropped off I-40 into a neighbor, invaded a home and killed family members. There's a lot of mental illness out there, undiagnosed and untreated, and a lot of drugs. Very bad combination.

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  8. Yes, I remember the Haywood County murders. There was several in this region, all with the same "randomness" that you mentioned. The most famous was probably the Alway murders in Georgia. However, Romeo and Shaw are a bit different. In some respects, they remind me of Loeb and Leopold
    back in the time of Clarence Darrow. They resemble
    the teenagers that Jim Cox mentioned in the film,
    "Funny Games."

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  9. Gary really nailed this one in his review. This is a terrific book. A total surprise. It's at first funny, then darkly so, then flat-out scary. Gary's review says it all, there's nothing to add except if you don't have access to an ARC, better get in line now for the book's July publication. Thanks to Gary, I'm not only a fan of the book, Green is new to me and on the strength of this one, I have ordered his first two novels.

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  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  11. Well, I misspelled a dozen words so I "removed" my previous posts. I just wanted to say, Maxwell, that I did the same thing. I found "The Juror" in the local used book store, but I'll have to wait until I am solvent again to order "The Caveman's Valentine." Once more, you have shown yourself to be keenly perceptive since you agreed with me about
    "Ravens." I wonder what kind of movie it woud make.
    Gary

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  12. ah Guru, I am glad you have a copy of "The Juror". I just finished it and urge you to read it. Rightaway! Now! Start! (He said maliciously knowing full-well it will keep the Guru up half the night as it did his ownself waking bleary-eyed and head-achey cursing George Dawes Green and the woman who bore him, then even before being properly coffeed-up scrambling for the book, tearing through the pages...pausing to re-read the sexy part ... then tearing again through the pages, searching for where he left off, to where The Teacher aka Vincent aka Zach aka Eben, the Hannibal Lecter-level intellectual psychopath, is patiently explaining to Annie, the juror, patiently explaining how it will be her fault, HER FAULT you understand, if he has to, HAS TO, mind you, kill her twelve year old child.

    Folks, you don't have to wait til July for this one to come out. It's right there at you friendly bookstore. Read it! Heh, heh, heh.

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  13. Damn. Okay, but first I have to go tell stories in Cashiers and Coosa and Greenville, S.C. Then, I will read "The Juror." (Actually, I read 20 pages just now and it was hard to put down ... but I did, because it is midnight. So, are you looking for
    "The Caveman's Valentine" now?

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  14. "The Juror"...not a bad movie...Alec Baldwin and Demi Moore...very good supporting cast...not quite a diamond in the rough but worth seeing.

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  15. Yeah, I agree. The movie made me anxious a few times, but the book scared me.

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  16. The characters and how they come to this is unrealistic. Shaw is not believable - as a lot of the characters, (is this character a personification of the author), how does shaw think he has this strange unweilding power over people. Reads like an author that has been out of practice and needs the cash. Of 5 stars I give it a 2.5

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  17. Of the five stars, I would give it 5.

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  18. I was almost bullied into reading RAVENS by the TIMES newspaper. On a trip up to Edinburgh there was nothing on the shelves that excited me. I was made a promise 'If you don't LOVE this book, we'll give you your money back'. I thought' that's quite a claim and how does it work?' but WOW am I glad I took part in this experiment! I have never devoured a book like this before and if it told me on the cover what it was about, I probably wouldn't have read it. So there ya go...RAVENS...read it!

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  19. I read Ravens and enjoyed it up to the last three pages. Then the big nothing ending left me feeling like I wasted my time reading the rest of it.

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