Saturday, August 10, 2019

America's terrorist underbelly exposed in Slaughter's THE LAST WIDOW and O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"

In Flannery O'Coonor's A Good Man Is Hard to Find, a criminal called The Misfit, a caricature of a good ol' boy gone bad, and his atavistic cohorts randomly capture a typical southern family. In this darkly satirical story, the criminals' shockingly casual killings are indelibly linked with the family's hypocritical values--illusions about class and virtue, racial prejudice, religious pretensions. This story, like Karin Slaughter's thriller, is about America's underbelly, where mainstream values have gone to seed, as the disaffected revel in demented revenge.

Karin Slaughter's THE LAST WIDOW (August 2019, HarperLuxe) begins in our time, July 7th, 2019 with the odd "random" kidnapping of a scientist from the Centers for Disease Control.  It's but a prologue to a bombing in Atlanta near Emory University; two major hospitals, the FBI headquarters, and CDC. The two actions are no coincidence and only the beginning.

Sara, a medical examiner, and her partner, Will, an investigator for the Georgia Bureau of  Investigation, rush to the scene that resembles our worst terrorist nightmares. What they eventually uncover is a deadly conspiracy, as savagely American as O'Connor's tale. This is literary territory but though Slaughter writes fast-paced bestsellers, THE LAST WIDOW crosses over to explore the origins of  radical right wing conspiracy against mainstream American life.

Dreiser's An American Tragedy traces evil action back to America's hyper valued ambition,  business success, high social status and prejudices against dreaded poverty and career failure. Like Dreiser, who was influenced by evolution, Slaughter's novel brought to mind the concept of the primitive "reptilian" part of our human brain, These are big themes in a page turner with believably noble characters amid monsters that unfortunately aren't too hard to believe.

In THE LAST WIDOW racism and xenophobia masquerade as patriotism. "Traditional" family values mask abuse of women and children. Through her protagonists' race to halt the death of thousands,  commercially cherished values; marriage,loyalty, fairness translate into their opposites. This is both a thriller and a novel of ideas in a high stakes situation, where nothing can be taken for what it seems.

I loved how Slaughter's lovers were both flawed and aware of their shortcomings. I found dyslexic Will, once an orphan on the streets, now an intrepid fighter for the helpless and Sara, born with a silver spoon, a doctor who saves lives and tracks criminals who take them--actually touching. The couple's differing kinds of intelligence, ambiguity about love and shared risk-taking are the heart of the  plot to find the terrorists. Stakes constantly ratchet up and when Sara is also kidnapped, Will becomes a one-man army to save her and America from a virulent home-grown  terrorism.

It was a pleasure to spend time with this couple, willing to put themselves on the line, pay the ultimate price--but not their loved partner! You want both to make it. This was an  "edge of your seat" thriller for me. With more sugar than Dreiser or O'Conner's endings,THE LAST WIDOW neatly ties up. But Slaughter doesn't back down from the hard truths of America's cultural underbelly. And her heroes don't easily recover from trauma. No one is unchanged nor the reality that this terror happens here.


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