The Terror of Living
by Urban Waite
Reviewed by Katherine Dunn
If the phrase "literary thriller" makes some of us wince, it's from fear of what some wise guy called "more writin' than readin'." But in The Terror of Living, Urban Waite's strong debut novel, that label is no oxymoron. In this case "literary" means assured and skillful prose that explores more than a Looney Tunes view of good vs. evil, and primary characters far more nuanced than Popeye and Bluto, or Bond and Goldfinger.
The "thriller" part is a plot crammed with surprises, kinks, suspense, danger and inventive violence. Though many small mysteries rise and resolve along the way, the propelling question is not whodunit, but whether anyone we've come to care about walks out of the fiery furnace at the end.
Waite is a Seattle native and his novel is rich in the physical sense of the region. The sounds and scents and the long-angled light of sea, forests and mountains come to us through the understanding of dueling protagonists, both born to the rain country.
Phil Hunt is a lean, quiet horseman in his 50s. He and his beloved wife, Nora, have a little spread north of Seattle where they train and board quarter horses. In his youth, Hunt killed a man he was trying to rob. He spent 10 years in prison but he'll never finish paying for it in his mind. Hunt and his wife have built a spare but decent life that they both treasure. Occasionally, to help finance that life, Hunt helps smuggle a load of hard drugs through the mountains from the Canadian border. Neither he nor Nora completely faces the criminal reality of the trade or the hazards of the journeys. But he's done it now for many years and thinks he understands the risks.
As The Terror of Living opens, Hunt is on his way into the high foothills of Mt. Baker with his two best horses and an inexperienced helper to pick up an unusually large shipment of heroin.
Bobby Drake is a newlywed deputy in a small timber town near Hunt's route. Drake's father was once sheriff in this town but is now serving a long stint in prison for moonlighting at the same kind of drug running that Hunt does.
Drake loved and respected his father, but he dropped out of college when the sheriff was arrested and hasn't spoken to him since. For Drake, the difference between good and bad is simple. His father brought him enormous shame and pain, and the young deputy is out to wipe it all away.
On patrol one day Drake runs across something that makes him suspect that somebody is making a drug run like his father's. He equips himself for a hunting trip and hikes into the wilderness.
In that rough terrain, Drake and Hunt collide, triggering an avalanche of horrendous consequences. The plot spins into an elaborate counterpoint revealing successive layers of criminal alliance turning fangs on each other. The links in the mob food chain become less human and more ruthless the higher they go. But the crux of the tale is always between the two real, fallible men at the heart of the catastrophe.
Hunt is in danger of destroying not just his life but everything that ever gave him peace or pleasure. Drake is horrified into doubting his own identity. At one desperate point he begs his young wife to "Tell me I'm a good man." The answer is more complicated than he's ready to hear. Neither man can find anyone but himself to blame.
The action is dynamic and cleverly choreographed, but the lush intricacy of the novel springs from the inner lives of these two men where, woven through the brutal mayhem, is an odd, indelible core of sweetness.