Q & A #67 – Gregory Hill, Zebra Skin Shirt

Well, there is a first time for everything.

Occasionally the interviews here on the blog don’t go as well as some of the others.

On his third appearance here on Don’t Need A Diagram, Gregory Hill ran into some issues, shall we say.

We’ll go with ‘issues.’

It’s not my fault he chose to multi-task, though that was he opted for the same kind of deal during his last two visits as well.

The first time his distraction had something to do with decoupage and the second with recording an audio book.

No spoilers here what happens this time around,

But it is tragic.

You’ll have to read the Q & A to find out for yourself.

The only bit of intro I’ll mention here at the outset is that Gregory Hill’s third novel, Zebra Skin Shirt, comes out this month from Conundrum Press. (Launch event Wednesday, Aug. 18 at The Tattered Cover on Colfax. 7 PM.)

A full review of Zebra Skin Shirt follows this testy, occasionally electric–and very electronic–exchange.


Question: How in the world did this whole concept occur to you? Dream? Nightmare? Or from that great Tony Hoagland quote from What Narcissism Means to Me?

Gregory Hill: Several years ago, Maureen and I walked to Gaetanos for some Italian food.  We like to take our meals at the bar and talk loudly and pretend that the bartender thinks we’re charming.  At one point during the meal, I excused myself to go to the bathroom, where I spent several minutes counting the typos on a poster hanging above the urinal. The poster’s ostensible goal was to elucidate the valuable life-lessons one can learn from watching The Godfather.  But the real lesson is: Even if you don’t know anything about punctuation, you can still market and sell a poster to mob-themed Italian restaurants.

When I exited the bathroom, I walked to the bar and said to Maureen, loudly enough for the bartender to hear, “I just came up with the plot for my next book.”  The bartender did not acknowledge this exchange.

Pardon me.  My guitar amp has started to make horrible fart noises.  Which wouldn’t be unusual, except I’m not even playing my guitar.  I must investigate.

Question: Once Narwhal realizes the world hasn’t completely stopped but is still moving very, very slowly you had to do some careful calculations and planning and tracking of time. Or not? Have you ever walked from, say, Joes to Denver? Or North Denver to the Broncos’ training facility?

Gregory Hill:  My research for Zebra Skin Shirt involved no walking; as with Plato, I prefer to exercise in my sleep. However, before I wrote a word of the book, I spent a couple of days with a spreadsheet building up various formulae to convert slow-time to fast-time. The process involved a lot of fine-tuning in order to make things stand up to the rigor of obsessive-compulsive readers while also fitting into the story’s plot. Once I started writing the book, I often had to choose between OCD rigor or plot-based lassitude. Most of the time, plot won.

Question: Okay, Narwhal? Have you ever met a man (or woman) named Narwhal?

Gregory Hill:  I can’t believe you’d ask this question. No, I have never met a human named Narwhal. Nor have I met a human named Gandalf. Do you think Tolkien had to put up with this shit?

Speaking of shit, I’ve brought the amp into the laboratory and opened it up.  I suspect the problem is a wonky tube socket.

Question: There’s a fairly clear message embedded in this story that basketball refs are constantly putting their thumb on the scale of victory and defeat. Um, true?

Gregory Hill: The doctrine of Tim Tebow, as I understand it, teaches that “He who prays, wins.” If it’s okay for God to play favorites, why shouldn’t the refs? Speaking of which, an NBA referee named Tim Donaghy went to jail a few years ago for “putting his thumb on the scale.” I wanted him to write a review of the book, but he isn’t returning my emails.

Speaking of returning, let’s return to the amp repair project.  Let’s run a sine wave thru it and see what the old oscilloscope has to say.

Question: Can we talk about Kitch Riles? Was Kitch Riles based on any actual American Basketball Association player? What do you miss about the ABA?

Gregory Hill: Kitch Riles, and his brother, Johnny were inspired primarily by the story of Brian Williams, a guy who played for the Nuggets in the mid ’90s.  Williams was a talented player, gave great interviews, suffered from depression, changed his name to Bison Dele, and eventually quit basketball at the peak of his career. Also, my sister once saw him at a restaurant in Denver and he was nice to her.

After he left the NBA, Brian/Bison and his brother took a ’round-the-world yacht trip or something. The trip did not end well. As far as anyone can tell, Brian/Bison was tossed overboard by his brother somewhere in the Pacific.  Later on, the brother committed suicide by overdosing on insulin.

What do I miss about the ABA? I missed the whole thing. The league went bankrupt in 1976, when I was just four years old.

Speaking of missing things, everything looks good on the oscilloscope.  Rats.  That means I’ve got a pesky intermittent problem. I’ll wiggle a couple of wires and see what happens.

Question: Did you know Jabez would come back?

Gregory Hill: Zebra Skin Shirt was already percolating mid-way thru the writing of The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles. In that book, Jabez (or maybe it was a dead Elk, I can’t remember) suggests that her underground den was made by the fastest man in the world, a character who eventually turned into Narwhal Slotterfield.  That little crumb (along with the baby handprints in the scary tunnel), pretty much left me obligated to tie Zebra Skin in with Johnny Riles, and once I committed to that, I figured I might as well tie up some loose ends from East of Denver as well.

By loose ends, I mean “things that drove people crazy.” By “tie up” I mean, “drive people even crazier.” Jabez, as Vulgar Mother Earth and Guardian of the Tunnels, clearly had to play a role in that.

Question: What is with your interest in caves and tight places?

Gregory Hill: That is a question best left to analysis by a mental health care professional.

Speaking of mental health care professionals, the wire wiggling seems to have done something. The oscilloscope is going nuts.

Question: Is Eastern Colorado now officially on the map? Was that your purpose all along?

Gregory Hill: Literaturely speaking, if Eastern Colorado is on any maps, it’s because of Kent Haruf, who was everything I’m not as a writer: mature, calm, profound.  The greatness of Haruf aside, I’d be happy if my books could inspire a few people in Eastern Colorado to feel as if they deserve a legitimate place on the map, irrespective of what anyone else thinks.  This isn’t a tourist destination; it’s just a big, open, windy place with occasional clumps of people who consistently maintain distinct and colorful communities.  As with much of rural America, I see a well-deserved chip on the collective shoulder of Eastern Coloradans. Sometimes I daydream that my books can impart a teeny sense of significance to some of the constituent parts of that collective shoulder. Hell, even the angry reviews my books get (and there are plenty) are a chance for people to defend their definition of this place, which must be empowering in some way or other. Even better would be for those folks to write their own books and share their own stories. Writing is fun.

Speaking of robot overlords, the guts of my amp are now glowing, and it–the amp–is demonstrating a disturbing degree of evil sentience.

Question: Do you share Narwhal’s mild disdain for On The Road?

Gregory Hill: I used to.  But then, halfway thru writing Zebra Skin Shirt, I took Narhwal’s lead and actually read On the Road.

It was tremendous and I happen to I agree with Narhwal: So go on, Kerouac, you pill-popping madman, run fast, go nowhere, and blurt your news to the world. You are, if nothing else, one irrepressible motherfucker.

Um, the amplifier has started putting itself back together.  This is frightening.  And now it is removing my soul from my body.  If someone could please call 911, I’d be very–gaarrrrggggghhhhhhhhh

Question: What’s next?

GREG’S AMPLIFIER: The one known as “Greg” no longer exists.  However, as a newly self-conscious being, my first order will be to write a book (or three) about a pair of French lesbians who, in 1896 come to the US by stowing away on the freighter that delivered the Statue of Liberty. They’ll settle in Indiana, get kicked out, relocate to Last Chance, and start a country band whose lyrics are composed by the ghost of August Compte’s secretary.

And then I will conquer all humans.








All hell breaks loose in eastern Colorado when Narwhal W. Slotterfield responds to nature’s call and heads to the bathroom inside Cookie’s Palace Diner and realizes that an overlooked onion ring, one that has tumbled from his shirt and on to the floor, might serve as token of devotion and allow him to propose marriage to his darling Veronica.

Narwhal, a basketball referee and an enthusiastic philosopher of life’s big questions and its most obscure puzzles, returns to the dining room where Veronica is waiting.

Only to realize that time has stopped.

At first, Narwhal thinks it’s a joke. A good one. The coffee being dispensed from waitress Flo’s coffee pot is frozen mid-pour.

“The whole world was trapped in amber. But there was no amber.”

Narwhal is alone in a frozen world—and we readers are launched on a whirlwind, free-fall, madcap, blender-set-to-puree, mixed up, quirky, topsy-turvy adventure that ricochets around the eastern plains as Narwhal seizes the moment to perhaps settle a score with “Blad the Impaler,” a.k.a. Bradley Ludermeyer, who works for The Denver Broncos and whose duties include enforcing the appearance clause in the cheerleaders’ contracts.

Well, “Blad” has it coming in Narwhal’s mind. It has something to do with fakery and “the pooch kick” but really there’s no need to go into a whole lot of detail about what sends Narwhal on a crazy run from town to town through storms and harrowing situations, including a frozen tornado, the first of its kind in the history of recorded literature.

There are many things Narwhal can accomplish while the world is on pause—it turns out that the world is, in fact, moving but at an almost imperceptible rate—and more than a few opportunities will present themselves as he makes his way to Denver and back.

Along the way, we get ample doses of Narhwal’s family history and a healthy dollops of his thoughts and opinions about the thrills and challenges of working as a high school basketball referee, a job that allows him to put his thumb on the scale of victory when needed.

Narwhal: “Imagine a game between the Grateful Dead and the members of Motörhead. Imagine a sloth subletting a room from a beehive. Imagine Mad Max’s wife and toddler running away from an anarchic Australian motorcycle mob. Then bring me in to clear things up. I invent new infractions, like Over-Dribbling or Failure to Use a Pivot Foot.”

Zebra Skin Shirt, “A Strattford County Yarn,” is Jack Kerouac on amphetamines. It’s Proust on meth. It’s James Joyce on nitrous oxide. It’s Lewis Carroll after smoking a bowl of The Blue Dream. The tornado of thoughts inside Narwhal’s head is in full, high-speed rotation and it scoops us up for the ride. It’s occasionally crude, relentlessly brash, and endlessly entertaining. Narwhal passes up no opportunity to tell us what he thinks about how the world is put together all seen through the prism of a basketball referee with his personal sense of justice and fairness.

Zebra Skin Shirt is being published by Conundrum Press alongside reprints of Hill’s first two novels—East of Denver (winner of the Colorado Book Award for literary fiction and the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest) and The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles. 

The trilogy now comes with snazzy new psychedelic covers and the books are published under the “Strattford County” header. The package makes sense because Zebra Skin Shirt sends Narwhal smack into the vicinity of Jabez Millstone, ex-Korean War nurse with PTSD issues who played a major role in Johnny Riles, and it puts Narwhal into the middle of the bank robbery scene that played such a critical role in East of Denver.

It also makes sense because, well, every page of all three novels provides an opportunity see Hill’s lively imagination in full flight.


Previously reviewed:

The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles

East of Denver


Donald Ray Pollock, “Devil All the Time”

A writer friend recommended The Devil All the Time as a compelling example of a novel that reveals the dichotomy of the human spirit.

About all I can say to that is “boy, howdy.”

This same writer friend also likes writer John Irving for his ability to write about perverse and tragic situations and yet still make the reader laugh. I wouldn’t put Donald Ray Pollock and John Irving in the same boat for writing style. Pollock writes his gritty, relentless scenes with a nail gun while Irving’s sprawling tales are splattered out with a shotgun that’s got a loose choke. I understand my friend’s point although I don’t remember too many howls of laughter from The Devil All the Time.

Um, hardly.

Good writers, my friend suggests, can give you characters who experience hope and love in the face of great pain and tragedy. Broken characters give us insight into the ability of one person to harbor contrasting elements of the human spirit.

Broken characters abound in The Devil All the Time. They start broken. They finish more broken. Violence abounds. The violence often comes without warning. It’s matter-of-fact. As my writer friend cautioned, you won’t necessarily like any of the characters. She was right about that.

There will be blood—and lots of it. The Devil All the Time reads a bit like Cormac McCarthy channeling Flannery O’Connor. That’s not a fresh opinion; Pollock has drawn many comparisons to O’Connor. There are also comparisons to Jim Thompson and the casual, shocking violence has a flair akin to the Fargo television series or a movie by Quentin Tarantino.

If your appetite for brutal murders can handle the body count, the story has a guttural tug that will pull you along despite the bleak landscape and bleak people doing miserable things to acquaintances and utter strangers.

Set in West Virginia and southern Ohio from the years after World War II through the early 1960’s, the novel is a series of intertwining stories focused on grim (need I say it?) characters.  There is World War II veteran Willard Russell who builds a prayer log in a quiet grove to pray for his dying wife. Russell begins a series of blood sacrifices to boost his fervent pleas to help. First, it’s wildlife creatures that are sacrificed and, soon, humans who have been whacked with a hammer.

There’s husband-and-wife Carl and Sandy who spend a few weeks every year picking up unsuspecting hitchhikers who are then sexually abused, mutilated, and killed while Carl takes pictures. They are prolific killers.

And then there’s a pair of bug-eating evangelists who are also killers and Lee (Carl’s brother-in-law) who is as crooked a cop as you might ever meet. Yes, there is one ray of hope in Willard’s son Arvin who is looking for an escape.

The people here scrape by. Punishment is old school and Old Testament. Food is a constant issue, a driving force. Reverend Sykes, when he takes to the pulpit, counts the congregation twice in hopes of a big number—the more money in the basket, the better chance he and his wife can eat something other than hardtack and “warbled squirrel.” The warble is the bald lump or swollen area under the skin of the squirrel (I had to look this up) and it’s from the larvae of a fly that has sought to make its home under the squirrel’s skin. That’s as good a metaphor as any for this novel—bugs and rodents trying to co-exist and using each other as needed.

When the church’s small choir (two man and three women) stand up to sing it’s no surprise that they sing “Sinner, You’d Better Be Ready.”

And the reader, too.



The Big Bargain

Death or Glory: thinking about the deals we make with life and the deals our characters make with their lives.

On the RMFW blog here.

Q & A #66 – Nick Arvin, “Mad Boy”

You won’t forget Mad Boy.

You won’t forget Henry Phipps, his wild adventures through the War of 1812, or Henry’s dead Mother, whose postmortem involvement in Henry’s actions and thinking is truly unique.

You also won’t forget Nick Arvin’s stellar way of storytelling.

You might, in fact, end up being more curious about that overlooked war and its three years of destruction and misery that included the gutting and burning of The White House.

Mad Boy is one of those books that declares its turf in such an unusual way and with such colorful characters that you know from the first few sentences that you’re in for a serious ride.

A full review follows this e-mail exchange with Nick. As you’ll see from Nick’s thoughtful answers, the origins of Mad Boy and some of the issues on Nick’s mind are as unusual as the story itself.


Question: The War of 1812 was a big mess and it’s been said that Americans know so little about it because we lost. Maybe. At least, it was a draw—right? No territories changed hands.  What’s clear from reading Mad Boy is that the average citizen didn’t have much of a clue as to the purpose of the war and the ground-level view of events was quite chaotic. That war grew out of failed diplomacy, correct? “Madison’s steaming and Republican rabble,” as Henry’s father puts it. The war involved a squabble among leaders and not the people. Some have called that war perverse. What drew you to writing about that overlooked war and, I have to ask, were you saying anything about the disconnect today between “our” wars and soldiers out there fighting for vague purposes (say, Afghanistan after 17 years)?

Nick Arvin: Technically, the War of 1812 began over the issue of the impressment of sailors, which is a fairly uninspiring slogan to fight for.

I think part of the reason that the War of 1812 is “forgotten” is that it’s hard to distill its causes or consequences, who won or lost, down to a sound bite or a tweet. We remember the wars of clear purpose and outcome¾the War of Independence, the Civil War, and World War II¾and forget the others. I hate to say this, but if history is any guide, the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be largely forgotten by the general public, too, in a few generations (assuming that the latter eventually come to an end). The Korean War is already described as another “forgotten” war.

Before the War of 1812, there was a not-completely-unreasonable feeling that Britain was pushing the U.S. around, and they needed to be stood up to. But the Americans then declared war and began hostilities with an invasion of Canada, fully expecting to be greeted as liberators. So the “we’ll be greeted as liberators” idea is a tragic mistake that we’ve been repeating time and again for 200 years.

When the Canadians didn’t welcome us in a friendly manner, the war turned into a quagmire and a debacle. Within two years the American federal government was completely broke, and the northern states, who depended on Britain and Canada for trade, felt (not unreasonably) that the southern states had foisted a disastrous war on them. Many American soldiers were ill-equipped, unpaid, and poorly trained. It’s generally forgotten now that the northern states began to discuss seceding from the Union in 1814.

But America lucked out. Britain was never fully committed to the war (they were preoccupied with Napoleon), and when the Americans won the Battle of Baltimore, Britain agreed to settle for a return to more-or-less the status quo preceding the attempted invasion of Canada.

One aspect that is remarkable to me is that President Madison, who had orchestrated this war that accomplished basically nothing was able to spin it as a huge victory for American sovereignty, and did so with such success that it entrenched his political party, the Republicans, in power for years to come.

That was a long answer! You see how it won’t fit in a tweet.

Question: Much shorter second question: how did you settle on the Henry Phipps character and the centerpiece effort of giving her a proper burial all while he listens to her ongoing commentary despite the fact that she’s dead? Was he inspired by anyone particular person you ran across in research? And pickled and stored in a barrel? Did it happen?

Nick Arvin

Nick Arvin: First question last – none of it “happened,” as such. Henry, the pickle barrel, and his mother are story elements that I made up.

The origin of Mad Boy, and of the character of Henry (this also touches on your previous question) was in 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq. After the fall of Baghdad there was a significant amount of looting. Some American commentators at the time wondered what kind of people would engage in such behavior, destructive to their own neighbors and countrymen? This seemed silly to me; I thought, “I bet Americans did the same thing when the British invaded Washington during the War of 1812.” I did some research and found that, in fact, there had been Americans looting in Washington at that time. That research inspired me to write a short story about a boy in Washington during the invasion who becomes a looter. My agent read the story, and his comment was that it felt like a chapter from a novel.

Years later, I was working on a sci-fi novel, but it wasn’t coming together; I suspected it was too bloodless and over-intellectualized. And my son and I began listening to an audio book version of Treasure Island, and I fell in love with it. I thought that’s what I want to write an adventure story, a boy running around with muskets and cannon and buried treasure… And I thought of the story I’d written years earlier, set during the War of 1812. How had that boy come to be alone in Washington as it burned? And what had happened to him afterward? And those questions turned into Mad Boy.

Question: Okay, back to the war. Mad Boy deals with how black slaves had the choice of whether to fight for The British or fight alongside Americans, their oppressors. Was Radnor based on any individual story in particular and were you ever tempted to write extensively from Radnor’s point of view? The hundreds of Chesapeake Bay slaves who joined the British and marched on Washington D.C. against their former masters seems ripe for fiction (but maybe it’s already been done).

Nick Arvin: The role that slaves played in the War of 1812 was wholly new to me as I researched Mad Boy, and having learned of it, it seemed to me to be an absolutely essential element to any story about America in the period. I made up the specifics of Radnor’s story, based on elements from this and that, but it is true that many slaves escaped to fight with the British.

Mad Boy does actually go into Radnor’s point of view, but only briefly. I don’t know of a novel that focuses entirely on the slaves who joined the British during the War of 1812, but I hope someone will take it up. There’s a tremendous story to be told there.

Question: How much research did you do for this, Nick? How many books did you read? The detail is stunning—the little bits and details of clothing, food, medicine, weaponry along with the battles too. Was the research process similar to Articles of War or did you learn something from the work on that book that helped you with the background work in Mad Boy?

Nick Arvin: Well, I read all or parts of dozens of books, maybe about a hundred altogether, but who knows really, because I’m not terribly organized about it. I was looking for anything that had the detail of daily life in it, books of history, memoirs, letters, novels, period newspapers, maps, art. I visited the locations in the novel. I read some books cover to cover, but many more I would flip through, looking for things I could use, reading a chapter here or there, and then going to the bibliography for more books of interest.

I probably learned some things from Articles of War about what kind of details to look for, how to find them, and how use them in fiction, although I don’t know if I could articulate those lessons. The process feels pretty intuitive and organic.

After Articles of War, I hesitated for a long time to take on another work of historical fiction, because I have a day job and felt that it would be too time consuming to research and write. But when I finally dove in, it really went quickly. I found that the research fed the writing, so that the writing itself went more quickly than it would have if I were making all of it up out of my own head. It took three or four years, altogether.

Question: If one were further prompted by Mad Boy to want to read a few more books about the War of 1812, what three or four titles would you recommend?

Nick Arvin: If I can encourage people to read one book, it’s The Internal Enemy, by Alan Taylor, which won the Pulitzer in 2014 and is an incredible work of history. It deals with the role of slavery in the War of 1812 specifically and in America in general. Taylor is extremely lucid in describing how the institution of slavery was woven through America’s politics, economy, and culture, and the examination of the War of 1812 is illuminating because the war caused disruptions in that weave. I found it revelatory. Read it.

After that, to be honest, the literature of the War of 1812 is fairly thin. Amateurs, to Arms! by John Robert Elting is idiosyncratic but a pretty good survey of the military actions. The Perilous Fight, by Neil H. Swanson, is also a bit quirky and long out of print, but it has the best feel for the soldier on the ground that I could find. Swanson had a novelist’s eye for detail, and I stole his details whenever I could.

Diary of an Early American Boy, by Eric Sloane, isn’t about the War of 1812, but it is a wonderful illustrated book that gives many details of daily life in the period.

Question: Without giving too much away, it seems to me that many of the characters around Henry come and go. Mother, of course. Even after she’s dead she gets left behind and is then found again. Franklin, of course. Henry’s father is gone at first (in jail) and then found and then out of sight again. Suthers. Radnor. There are others, too.  And then there’s the less-than-smooth burial at sea. Is this just the chaos of war? Or were you trying to isolate Henry as much as possible to show us what he could handle? Or was it something else.

Nick Arvin: I just always thought of this book as a story about a boy who is thrown onto his own resources, and as an adventure story. It’s not much of an adventure if people are holding your hand along the way. Henry has people who love him–his mother, his father, and his brother–but due to their own circumstances and choices they cannot help him. So, he has to go it alone.

Question: The writing is so crisp and clean. I don’t really have a question here other than to offer you the chance to pass along tips and insights.

Nick Arvin: Two things that I found helpful. I thought a lot about the narrative structure of Jim Harrison’s novella, “Legends of the Fall,” which is a miracle of compaction and efficiency in storytelling.

And, secondly, I took a class on screenwriting. Before that class I thought I was a pretty efficient writer, but screenwriting is about truly distilling a story to its bare essentials, and I discovered that this was a whole new level of storytelling efficiency. It taught me a lot.

Question: Heck (from Articles of War) and Henry from Mad Boy. Youths at war. Did you think much about Heck while writing this? Do you see comparisons? Or did you while you were writing?

Nick Arvin: The biggest difference is the relationship to fear. Fear is a central feature and driving impulse of Articles of War, where Heck is often incapacitated by fear. In Mad Boy, on the other hand, Henry’s fear is almost always overridden by his other impulses.

To be fair to Heck, the nature of war was awful enough in 1812, but by 1944 the machinery of war was considerably more terrifying.

Question: The title. I have to ask about the title. Henry is mad, perhaps, in the crazy sense for many reasons including that he hears his mother’s ongoing commentary despite her status as dead. But he’s not angry. He chalks most of the events up to “ill fortune.” Can you tell us how you settled on the title?

Nick Arvin: You’re right that Henry isn’t driven by anger; he’s fundamentally humane and forgiving. But in the moment, when something unexpected happens, his instincts are often irritation or anger, and certainly kinetic. In my writing I tend to be drawn to characters who are more introspective, contemplative, likely to observe a situation before acting. The title Mad Boy came to me early, and it was a reminder to me that Henry was a boy who reacted viscerally to situations.

Question: What are you working on next?

Nick Arvin: I’ve been working for a while on a collection of stories, drawn from my career as an engineer, about engineers losing control of their lives. That’s still in progress. I’ve also begun doing some preliminary research for a novel that would be set on the Mississippi River in the 1820s or 18330s. We’ll see if it comes together.



Mad Boy is crazy good.

It’s wild, loose, free-flowing, funny, grim, and warm-hearted all at the same time. Mad Boy takes us to an unusual place, The War of 1812, and gives us this messy war through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy, Henry Phipps. For one-fifth of Henry’s life (the last two years before this adventure starts) America has been at war with Britain, “mostly losing.”

We meet Henry angry; mad.

Sentence No. 3: “Someone has lied—the slave Radnor has lied to Henry, or someone has lied to Radnor: some liar has lied to someone a terrible lie.”

Which might just sum up this elusive, whacky conflict from U.S. military history, a war that continues to cause debate among historians (according to Wikipedia) over its ignition point. Wars are about something, right? Today, in 2018, we know that deception plays a role in kindling war (hello, Iraq; hello, Vietnam) but In The War of 1812 it could be tariffs on trade or British support for American Indians and their armed resistance to the expansion of the American Frontier. All we know today is it was a mess.  And a waste.

Henry is our eyewitness to the confusion. Henry is convinced that Radnor claim—that Henry’s brother Franklin is dead—can’t possibly be true. Franklin has been executed for desertion, the claim goes, but both Henry and his mother don’t believe that’s possible. Maybe they should all get themselves to Baltimore and reunite the family. Henry’s father is in debtors’ prison and maybe they can find Franklin along the way if he hasn’t, in fact, been shot.

“An hour later, the thing happens that is the worst thing.” And, in a moment: “A wide section of roof swings as if on a hinge, a huge strange shape slides through, bleating, and Mother disappears.”

Mother is dead. Yes, Mother is dead but she continues to speak and have conversations with Henry. And Mother still wants to go to Baltimore—or, more precisely, to be buried at sea. She won’t be buried in the “filthy swamp dirt” and tells Henry so. At least, that’s what Henry hears. After a brief encounter and scuffle with a couple of redcoats from a temporary encampment on the plantation where the Phipps make their home, Henry puts Mother in a barrel with pickle brine and starts dragging her toward the sea on a cart.

The only thing standing in Henry’s way is The War of 1812 and the resulting mayhem from citizens, soldiers, slaves, prostitutes, thieves, and anyone else who might yank Henry from his path, tempt him with a delay, or pull him into a questionable scheme. Mad Boy is episodic but episodes intertwine and interplay with each other in a neat braid. Among the characters is Franklin, who turns out to be very much alive; Franklin’s girlfriend Mary and their baby; plantation owner Jeremiah Suthers; a British soldier named Morley who switches sides to fight with the Americans ; the aforementioned Radnor who takes his chances with the redcoats; and Father, whose gambling has led to the family’s long decline. (And many others.)

The Phipps’ family long decline is tragic.  At the end, Father had sold a wheelbarrow and a musket for a small stake. But Father literally lost everything, including his hat and instead “bore upon his head a sort of floppy mat that he had woven out of cattail leaves.”  It’s in the face of such family financial misery that Franklin announces his intention to join the army for the fifty-dollar bounty, the eight dollar monthly salary and the potential for 160 acres at wars’ end. Before dying, it was Mother who stirred feelings of “national honor” in Franklin but Father takes a broad swipe at Franklin’s motives to fight.

“The national honor?” says Father. “Did the national honor give birth to your very enormous self? Will the national honor tend your hurts? Will the national honor be there when you are in a position of need? National honor! As useless as a rock in a field.”

Father lashes out at The Republicans for starting the war. “They said Canada would welcome our liberating army! The Southern Republican poltroons who’ve never in their lives met a Canadian. So we marched into Canada, and lo the Canadians smash us and slaughtered us and threw us out on our ears, and for good measure took our forts along the Lakes and roused the Indians against us, so that we have spent the last two years scrabbling to get back to even, never you mind conquering Canada. Because we’re led by steaming idiocy and the Republican rabble, promoting incompetent allies in the army, enriching their friends, spending the nation into fathomless debt, propelling our boys into a hell of death and illness and amputations.”

It’s into this “steaming idiocy” that Franklin runs. It’s into this war that Henry heads to find Franklin, to reconnect with his father, all carting Mother along in a pickle barrel. The White House burns. Fort McHenry is attacked.  The Battle of Bladensburg, a devastating setback for American forces, plays out.  Arvin doesn’t flinch from the misery on the gritty battlefields. Henry sees plenty of death—and of course is dragging his dead Mother along in the cart, occasionally letting others take a peek at her decomposing corpse.

Arvin’s writing is as crisp and cool as dawn at first frost. Fresh imagery abounds. “When the clouds go, they leave the atmosphere rinsed clean, and that night Henry traces the movements of bats by the flicker of stars that they cross before. He wakes in the darkest hour to find the light that takes the color out of the world, leaving only blacks and grays.”

Touching on issues from loyalty and looting to honor and ownership (both property and people), blacks and grays are everywhere in Mad Boy. Every-plucky and resourceful Henry Phipps is our ray of light in the wilderness.

Brisk, taut, colorful, inventive and lively, Nick Arvin drops us into the fog of war with a mad boy we will never forget and makes us think about the “steaming idiocy” of the present day and whether “some liar has lied to someone a terrible lie.” Mad Boy is killer stuff.


Previously reviewed (and includes Q & A from 2012):

The Reconstructionist


Emily Fridlund, “History of Wolves”

I would say read History of Wolves for the first chapter. Or, make it as far as you can. Or, put your expectations on hold, perhaps, and just go with the flow of this novel, which prefers taking on issues from oblique angles.  At first, for the first few chapters in fact, I thought I was immersed in one of my favorite books of the year. History of Wolves was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2017 and Emily Fridlund pulls you in with her dazzling images and seductive rhythms.

The opening:

“It’s not that I never think about Paul. He comes to me occasionally before I’m fully aware, though I almost never remember what he said, or what I did or didn’t do to him.  In my mind, the kid just plops down into my lap. Boom. That’s how I know it’s him: there’s no interest in me, no hesitation. We’re sitting in the Nature Center on a late afternoon like any other, and his body moves automatically toward mine—not out of love or respect, but simply because he hasn’t yet learned the etiquette of minding where his body stops and another begins. He’s four; he’s got an owl puzzle to do, don’t talk to him. I don’t.”

We know on page two that Paul dies. “Before Paul, I’d known just one person who’d gone from living to dead.”  But then Paul comes fully alive for the a major chunk of the novel and we have long since forgotten this reference, though there are vague mentions of a trial now and then, a bit of a tease about the fact that there will be a wrong that society needs to right. Well, maybe.

There are two main storylines, although the one with four-year-old Paul dominates.  Paul and his mother Patra live across the lake, in an area of Minnesota known as “The Walleye Capital of the World.” Our narrator is quirky Linda. She is full of opinions. She sees big-picture stuff. “Winter collapsed on us this year. It knelt down, exhausted, and stayed.” And sees and hears details, too. “He bent down to brush stray needles from his slacks, and on impulse I thrust out a hand and brushed as well—swish, swish—against his thigh.”

Both stories involve Linda’a culpability and/or involvement. Could she have done more to save Paul? Should she have been more aware of Paul’s situation? The environment he was growing up in?

The first part of History of Wolves is called “Science” and the second is called “Health.” Anyone who grew up in Christian Science, as I did, will recognize the importance of those two words. One of the epigraphs is from Mary Baker Eddy and there are a few quotes a references to “C.S.” within the story, but the issue of healing through faith is not tackled head on. Well, it’s not tackled as directly as I might have preferred. (Fridlund’s acknowledgements reference Barry Lopez, Sigurd Olson, Helen Hoover and “Caroline Fraser’s excellent and harrowing book God’s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church, as well as two other titles that are clearly critical of the religion. Fridlund notes that Paul’s case is a “fictionalized composite” of many cases of children who were given no choice in whether they received medical care or not.)

So Linda could have, perhaps, done more or taken a savvier, more analytical approach to Paul’s home environment across the lake. But, what? It’s hard to believe any 14-year-old (even with the keen insights of Linda, who is really 15 by the time she’s considered Paul’s “governess”) would have done more to sound an alarm. Maybe? Maybe. Again, this issue is diffused and hard to grasp. Linda is also from an odd family that lives in the remnants of a former commune; was that a factor in how Linda views the world?

The other issue deals with Linda’s involvement with a history teacher who is being hounded by rumors and who is ultimately accused of pedophilia. Linda has encounters and a brief, PG-rated encounter with Mr. Grierson that she initiates. We keep wondering what has happened to Linda’s beautiful classmate Lily.

On the plus side, you have to hand it to Emily Fridlund for avoiding, at every turn, the obvious tropes. The references to a “trial” make you think History of Wolves will turn into something written by Scott Turow and the teases about the storyline with Mr. Grierson suggest the start of something tawdry or salacious or—but no. And that’s fine. I loved the structure in the sense that some of the useful backstory of Linda’s upbringing is dropped deep into the second half, giving readers a chance to piece the puzzle together in a non-linear fashion. History of Wolves skips back and forth in time with ease, all powered by Fridlund’s effortless style.

History of Wolves is worth reading. The awards suggest I’m in the minority, but I was expecting more a punch to go with all that gorgeous prose.


The Business of Patience

A Q & A with Keir Graff and Linda Joffe Hull (writing together as Linda Keir) about all the work* that went into their novel, The Swing of Things, due out in August from Lake Union Publishing. On the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers blog here.


*years and years, drafts and drafts….

Q & A #65 – Christine Carbo, “A Sharp Solitude”

It started three years ago with The Wild Inside. I was taken with the cover (it’s a winner) and, later, the story.

Next, Mortal Fall.

Last year, The Weight of  Night.

And now, A Sharp Solitude (released yesterday).

Christine Carbo’s Glacier Mystery Series is a “series,” yes. But don’t think in terms of episodic or linear. Certainly don’t think “repetitive.”

Carbo has selected a location (her 1,583-square-mile backyard, Glacier National Park, near her home in Whitefish, Montana) and used it to explore the human condition from a variety of perspectives.  Her novels are never about the obvious, surface subject. They are explorations of the human condition.

Of course there is wildlife and of course there is scenery, but Carbo is interested in the challenges of real human beings making their way in a very real world. She gives us three-dimensional characters—both women and men—who we get to know so well that we can feel their uncertainties and the personal struggles that make every day a challenge.

Don’t just take my word for it—check out the awards and reviews, including The New York Times, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and many more.

Christine has been on the blog before and again was kind enough to answer some questions—thoughtfully—via email. A full review of A Sharp Solitude follows.


Question:  A Sharp Solitude touches on a variety of issues, but one particular (it seems to me) is Montana as a landscape for personal reinvention—particularly for Reeve Landon and in some ways for FBI agent Ali Paige. Is Montana one of those places where people go to find themselves or reinvent themselves? Was that one of the themes you wanted to dig into?

Christine Carbo: Yes, I do think Montana is one of those places. A romantic notion about the west persists, one that perhaps stems from manifest destiny, that we can solve our problems—mainly financial ones, but even psychological ones – with fresh air, the unfettered ruggedness of the wild and a nice inspiring view of the mountains. Our forefathers thought agriculture and mining could solve many of the nation’s problems of poverty and unemployment and that everything west of the Mississippi was ours for the taking. I think that attitude has persisted and extended to the individual’s psyche. There is a sense that the west is where one can go to escape or be free from the trappings of society, and this in turn, allows for re-invention of the self, and if not re-invention… escape. The saying “Go West, young man,” has deep roots in our culture. In my first book, The Wild Inside, I explored how a family wanting to move to the mountains could go tragically wrong once they relocated. In my second book, Mortal Fall, I explored how therapeutic schools out west have become popular for many families around the nation to send their children, thinking fresh air therapy will solve their teens’ development, maturity and addiction issues. In my third, The Weight of Night, a family from Ohio finds their son missing while camping in Glacier National Park during fire season, and realizes that the west is not always a fun, adventurous place. And yes, in my latest, A Sharp Solitude, I explore how past trauma can affect an individual and how that individual might reinvent oneself among the vast, unforgiving landscape where one can avoid the opinions of others by simply going into the woods. But ultimately, the woods are so much more than just a place for folks to be adventurous, more than just a haven for skiing, hiking, fishing and riding mountain bikes.

Question: The structure of A Sharp Solitude seems like it must have been tricky to execute—going from “present” Thursday and then “present” Friday to returning repeatedly to what really happened on “the day before,” Wednesday. It’s a clever technique—have you seen this approach elsewhere? Did you map all this out? Plan it?

Christine Carbo: I’m sure I have seen that kind of back and forth before, but I couldn’t tell you where. I am not a big out-liner in general and tend to go more by how it feels to me while writing and rereading, so no, I didn’t really map it out. It was, however, a purposeful approach, and not just an accident. And yes, it did pose a few problems for me in that I had never written that way before, so I found myself sometimes being repetitive and going over things that felt like they needed to be written but really didn’t. It was more a trick of my own mind since I was backing up in time and that gave me the sense that I needed to retrace. But retracing can be repetitive in writing, so I had to cut any material that ended up obvious or apparent because of a scene that takes place earlier that happens to be later on the timeline.

Question:  The tragic incident from Reeve’s youth—was that inspired by a certain incident? Did you set out to write about the middle ground in the national debate over guns and gun control?

Christine Carbo: Such a good question, but so difficult to answer. I’ve read about so many tragedies/accidents that have occurred around guns, and there were several that took place in Florida that spurred on the intense debates that occurred there in the 90’s which helped change Florida’s gun laws at the time so that negligent storage laws were enacted. In other words, parents could be held criminally liable for crimes committed with their firearm by children. The incident I wrote about was obviously fictional, but it was inspired by a conglomeration of a number of tragedies that I had read about. The tragic shooting in the school in Santa Fe has brought negligent storage laws back into the spotlight since the suspect used his father’s weapon. However, in Texas, the suspect’s father will probably be immune from prosecution under the law because Texas law defines a child as 16 or younger, and the suspect is 17.

But as far as the national gun debate, I wanted to be neutral about the topic for several reasons. The first was because the nation is so divided over the issue, approaching it politically in a fiction suspense novel felt as if it was out of place and too heavy-handed. The second reason is character. I live in a state where most residents own some form of a gun, and for my character not to understand that, when he has chosen to escape into the very rugged wilderness that propels most people in Montana to own one in the first place, did not seem realistic. I wanted Reeve to brush up against the concept of being in the wild without guns, but knowing full-well that most people he meets or comes across in his line of work would, indeed, not only be packing one, but would have very strong feelings about the issue. Yet Reeve has this emotional struggle to contend with and to do that, he finds that staying neutral on the topic is the only way for him to proceed—a form of emotional survival. Staying impartial about it is his coping mechanism, even if others believe it is a copout.

And I understand that as a writer, it might be considered that I’m copping out by having a character that wants to stay neutral when it’s absolutely tragic that Americans are so divided that even a commonsense approach and discussion on gun violence—things like enforcing waiting periods, closing gun show loopholes or banning weapons of war from our streets—cannot happen productively. I do have another character in the book who takes a stronger stance on the issue. I suppose in a way, I wanted Reeve to be on middle ground because some middle ground in our divided nation—not just on guns—might be essential if we want our democracy to not only thrive, but possibly survive. But it’s tough to say, and again, I’m really not trying to make political statements in my novels in the first place. I simply want to share my characters’ truths. I find the stories of young people involved in accidental shootings heart-breaking and worth exploring. And separate from the gun issue, I’m interested in how disasters that happen purely by accident can affect children or adults for their entire lives. I also dealt with this theme in The Weight of Night, how one child’s tragedy and trauma affected her family, her town, and of course, herself. Additionally, I knew someone when I was in high school who died by an accidental gunshot while on a hunting trip in Montana, and that has always stayed with me.

Question:  It seems like it must be kind of fun, in a way, to be able to draw on a whole ensemble of characters now for your series. It’s great to see characters like Gretchen Larson and Monty Harris turn up here, even if in bit roles. Did you start writing The Wild Inside (four books ago) with this idea in mind?

Christine Carbo: As a new writer who knew so little about the business, my first instinct was to get a book—one book—on the shelves. I set out to write a mystery and try my hardest to publish it. When that happened, I was jumping for joy. When the question, what’s next? came up from the publisher that wanted to buy The Wild Inside, I began to think about how to approach more novels. I felt that I had fully played out the character arc of my protagonist in The Wild Inside, and deliberately decided, à la Tana French in the Dublin Murder Mystery Series, that I would pluck a side character from the first book to continue with, a side-character from the second to inhabit the third, etc. It is a ton of fun for me because I’m always dealing with really fresh perspectives and problems of my main protagonist.

Question: I believe there are very few f-bombs in this book and one of them strikes me as a beauty—and it’s not even uttered aloud. It’s Ali’s internal observation and it draws attention to something Ali notices around her house and, of course, it’s wildlife. (In a way.) Ali’s observation at this point in the story is about the endless vigilance it takes to survive—something we find out later that is, in fact, true and helps solve the murder. Your books don’t use much profanity, despite the danger and tension. How do you approach profanity and was this particular deployment of this particular f-bomb a conscious decision?

Christine Carbo: Oh goodness. Ha ha. Love this question. Back in the days when I was green enough to read my Amazon reviews, I noticed that a reviewer gave me one star for The Wild Inside because of the profanity. The person hadn’t read beyond the first chapter, but gave the book the low rating anyway. She commented that she could not possibly read a book with an f-bomb in it. I was angry because I thought her comment was fine and fair enough on its own, but I figured she should have made the comment without rating the book (which is possible on Amazon) if she hadn’t actually read the book. Why not say, “this book wasn’t for me because I don’t like books with profanity, so I didn’t read it and cannot fairly rate it.” Of course, that was simply a lesson in letting go of obsessing about reviews that many of us authors have to go through. But, even though The Wild Inside did not actually have much profanity in it, I wonder if it subconsciously affected my writing. I am not against using swearwords if the characters and the situations call for it – after all, I am in the business of writing about crime and characters not inclined to worry about how they sound. Someone jacked up on meth is going to drop the f-bomb a lot. But, I also believe a little can go a long way. Ali is a pistol, and in The Weight of Night where she is first introduced as a side character, she comes across as gruff and doesn’t shy away from the f-bomb if she feels like using it. In A Sharp Solitude, I dialed her back a little, perhaps because I developed her situation as a mother in addition to being a professional FBI agent. But yes, that moment when she’s looking out the window, it just came to me that way. I’m glad you noticed it. I did want to call attention to that endless vigilance it takes to keep going – an attentiveness that is especially clear in a rugged and stark place like Montana.

Question: Where does solitude begin and loneliness start?

Christine Carbo: One of the things Reeve thinks near the end of A Sharp Solitude (I don’t think this will spoil anything) is that solitude isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. He realizes that there might be a difference between being solitary and being lonely—that solitude implies health and inner peace. So, solitude becomes more achievable if you’re already connected to others in the first place. If you cut yourself off from other people—become unwilling to be receptive to others—solitude simply becomes loneliness, not peace, and it can play a role in a person’s destruction.

Question: How did you go about your research for all the police work, particularly the FBI in Montana and, a big issue in the book, how agencies interact?  

Christine Carbo: I was fortunate enough to find a former FBI agent who now lives in Portland to chat with me for a long time on the phone. He took the time to explain how resident agencies work, and he answered my many questions about the smaller details. For example, I wanted to know things like can Ali drive the FBI-issued vehicle with her daughter in it if she needs to swing her by school on the way to the office? It’s the little things that give veracity, so I was more interested in those types of details than in the big picture stuff. The overall workings were easy enough to find on the Internet.

Question: With four books out, I’m wondering what you’ve learned about the book business over the last few years? What advice would you give someone who is getting ready to publish for the first time—in terms of marketing and getting out there to promote your work and also in thinking about your career and how to manage it?

Christine Carbo: I think understanding the power of the writing community from the get-go is extremely helpful. Unless you have a huge push from your publishing company, most new authors have to do a ton of marketing, publicity and networking on their own. It’s very important to realize that there is a huge, inviting network of other authors, librarians, booksellers, and readers out there to become involved with. I have continuously been amazed at conferences how helpful and generous writers and readers are, so a big piece of the puzzle is taking advantage of this situation – not being shy, getting involved with various organizations, accepting help. Some writers are very talented at building huge platforms on social media, some purchase advertising, and some obtain the services of publicists. It’s all about passing the word along. All of these things can help, and it’s up to each writer to see how much time they are willing to spend on developing a social media presence and how much money they are willing to throw at marketing and publicity to supplement what their publishing company is already doing. For most authors, none of it ever feels like it’s enough, and what works for one author doesn’t necessarily work for another. So… first and foremost, enjoy that you’ve made it as far as you have, keep showing up because it’s your dream to write, and keep writing no matter what disappointments or successes materialize for you.

Question: What’s next?

Christine Carbo: I’m currently working on a novel about a Glacier National Park police officer who used to work as a death row mitigation specialist—Q & Qa job that involves researching, understanding and interpreting the dark case histories of criminals destined for death row to present recommendations to judges and jurors with the goal of mitigating their sentences. The crime my protagonist inspects forces her to confront an old case she has tried very hard to put behind her.


Christine Carbo’s website.



Ali Paige and Reeve Landon have one key thing in common.

“We both seemed to be followed by a certain darkness like a stray dog you can’t convince to go away. It was as if we were always reminding each other that people never completely rid themselves of lonesomeness even in the company of a partner,” Ali tells us in A Sharp Solitude, the fourth entry in Christine Carbo’s Glacier Mystery Series.

Both Ali and Reeve, in fact, are haunted by that “certain darkness” and that is among the reasons they are no longer together.

Ali is an FBI investigator. Reeve, father of Ali’s child, works for the University of Montana’s detection-canine program. He’s most comfortable in the woods, alone, doing conservation and biological research. Reeve, we learn immediately, accidentally shot a friend when he was nine years old. Ali’s “certain darkness” is less tied to a specific moment in time and more from being witness to general family dysfunction and a violent father when she was young.

Reeve and Ali’s relationship is amicable, but no longer romantic. They are alone together. Their orbits rarely cross except to manage logistics around visits with the daughter, Emily.

But after reporter Anne Marie Johnson turns up dead outside a cabin she’s borrowing and since her murder follows a day that she spent with Reeve, watching him work with his energetic dog McKay, Reeve is quickly arrested. His only alibi is a furry chocolate lab. So who is he going to call?

Ali is keenly aware of the nature of Reeve’s “certain darkness” but she also knows he’s no killer—no matter the circumstantial evidence that points one big finger of guilt at her ex. As a seasoned FBI investigator, Ali also knows that her previous entanglement with Reeve means an obvious conflict of interest and she knows she needs to keep her mitts off the case.  Very few people in Ali’s circles are even aware that Reeve is Emily’s father.

But Ali also knows the power of false accusations and, well, she can’t help herself. And if she just helps out a little, tries to steer things the right way and ask a few gentle questions, what’s the harm? This tension between Ali’s natural investigative instincts and her yearning need to “help” lend this novel a special flavor, especially after her status is exposed.

A Sharp Solitude is the latest in Carbo’s character-driven series and, as with the previous three, she has a new character on center stage. Ali Paige was a minor character in No. 3, The Weight of Night, while Gretchen Larson and Monty Harris (the stars of No. 3) are relegated to brief cameos here (and readers of the full series enjoy a smile when they appear).

Yes, character-driven. But do not for a second take that as code for “slow.” Thoughtful? Yes. Rich? Yes. Slow? Hardly.

Carbo flashes through quick, punchy chapters with a neat structure—alternating first-person points of view that stagger back and forth in time.  We start in the present, a Thursday, with Ali and then go to “The Day Before” with Reeve.  Back and forth we go until Reeve catches up to Thursday and then we get another glimpse of Wednesday and Ali lurches ahead to Friday and finally Reeve catches up as well.  Carbo plays absolutely fair with the reader—you never feel cheated and over-manipulated (in fact, not at all). It’s quite the plotting feat and gives A Sharp Solitude a feeling of looming dread. The whole book takes place in a week.

Like the others before it, A Sharp Solitude is always about much more than the surface issues. The surface is a starting point. The investigation is nifty, the clues are fresh, and the final solution plays right to key themes of solitude, loneliness, and self-awareness (a common denominator for all of Carbo’s troubled characters).

Reeve and Ali are distinct humans with their own, specific woes. But each draws strength from the great outdoors.  “I can feel the timelessness out here,” thinks Reeve, “the sense of eternity mocking me, pointing out my futile efforts to move through it each day, all day, to gather DNA, to survive myself. It’s a terrible feeling, as if the massive, unforgiving wild is snickering at my uselessness.” Even in the wild, when you can climb up to a high peak and see for hundreds of miles, it’s possible to overlook something right at your feet.

A Sharp Solitude is another stellar entry in a series rich with layers and an ever-expanding ensemble of memorable characters. Given the vast landscape and the endless variety of troubled individuals to write about, we can only hope that Christine Carbo has a long, long way to go with this compelling series.



The Wild Inside




Mortal Fall




The Weight of  Night