Near the end of "Radium," John Enger's compelling debut novel, narrator Jim Quinn recalls the story of Unlucky Luke, a farm boy who, during a midnight sprint at a barracks stop en route to military Basic Training, gets out front, trips on a tree root and is subsequently trampled by 50-some recruits who can't see him in the darkness.
Never reaching boot camp, Luke is not technically a soldier and so doesn't qualify for disability. He returns to Radium with crippling back pain and a dead-end job.
"Luke made one big mistake," Jim says. "He tried to be out front. People from Radium ... They have to stay in the middle. They have to be mediocre, or the world crushes them."
It's a perfect metaphor for this episodic, shoot-it-up tale of two brothers from western Minnesota who have nothing to lose, traveling the U.S. stealing cars and robbing liquor stores with a U.S. marshal constantly in their rearview mirror.
The journey starts when Billy Quinn impregnates the daughter of the town hothead who — because he thinks Billy and Jim are trailer trash — has his goons rough up Billy. Billy in turn takes a bottle of grain alcohol to the man's grain elevator, starting a fire that not only destroys the structure but consumes the entire town.
Jim and Billy hit the road, outlaws arising from the fire they created.
They steal a car and make a run for it. Along the way they hot-wire old pickups, rob shady businesses, bunk in abandoned barns, use aliases, discuss God with a preacher they encounter more than once, drink whiskey, steal from a mega-church, and work as lumberjacks.
And always they are loyal to each other — Billy protecting his damaged younger brother; Jim doing anything his brother asks him to do.
"My brother wasn't just some garbage redneck," Jim explains. "He was a wild, dangerous, joyful beast, wearing the skin and bones of a man. He could do anything."
While disenfranchised white men pushing pedal to the metal, stealing cars, robbing liquor stores, killing dogs and men while intermittently enjoying the care of tender women may not be a genre I'd normally reach for, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is brilliantly written — tight, visual, well-paced — and I liked these guys. A lot. (The author is the son of writer Leif Enger and the nephew of author Lin Enger.)
The episodes are vivid and tense. Best of all is the voice of Jim, the narrator, a boy severely injured in a car accident when he was young, a metal-mangling wreck that killed his father and nearly killed his brother. The accident left him with a mysterious gift at odd times in addition to a sense of himself as damaged goods.
Jim's self-effacing devotion to Billy is endearing, and his perceptions are sweet, sad and mystical — think of a Sam Shepard play with interior monologue, or a Cormac McCarthy novel in the voice of Holden Caulfield. I enjoyed being in this boy's head — or, as he would put it, his "big spinning melon head."
It is well worth the ride, the dusty, defeated backwoods drive, which doesn't end entirely as Jim predicts.
Christine Brunkhorst is a writer and reviewer in Minneapolis.
By: John Enger.
Publisher: North Dakota State University Press, 385 pages, $29.95.