Written by Allen Eskens — The Life We Bury is Allen Eskens’ first novel, but you’d really never know it, from prose that approaches the poetic, to the carefully constructed mystery within.
It’s only been a month since 21-year-old Joe Talbert left his Austin, Minnesota home to start college at the University of Minnesota. His mother is bipolar and an alcoholic, and Jeremy, his 18-year-old brother, has autism. Joe is wracked with guilt at leaving his brother, but is also desperate to escape the squalor of his upbringing and make more of himself. His car is rusty and full of holes, but it’s his, and if he has to spend his nights working as a bouncer at a local bar, so be it. Anything is better than home.
Distraction soon comes for Joe, however, in the form of an English project requiring him to write a biography of a real person, and he heads to a care home for the elderly to find his subject. He learns of Carl Iverson, a decorated Vietnam veteran who’s dying of pancreatic cancer, but Joe is shocked to find out that Carl has been paroled after spending 30 years in prison for raping and killing a 14-year-old girl.
Joe’s initial disgust is to be expected. After all, these are awful crimes, but before he can have a proper meeting with the man he makes a point of studying up on not only the crime, but also Iverson’s decorated past. Joe is thrown quite a curveball, however, when his mother is jailed and he must take care of his brother for the duration. Joe can’t give up on his project, in spite of the new demands on his life. When he meets Carl Iverson for the first time, the monster that Joe expects is nowhere to be seen, and Joe has trouble reconciling the man before him with the crime he supposedly committed.
His research into the old case gains momentum fairly quickly, and he’s aided by his neighbour, Lila Nash, who he’s nursed a crush on for a while. She seems to like him too, but is reluctant to get involved until she learns of his project. With Lila’s encouragement and help, and the young victim’s diary – obtained with Iverson’s permission, along with other evidence – Joe resolves to get to the bottom of the murder and hopefully put to rest his doubts about Iverson’s guilt.
Joe narrates the story, and it’s easy to believe that he’s telling it from the comfort of middle age. The language is beautiful and the observations ring with an astuteness that only comes with age. There is a mystery here, of course, which is the truth at the heart of the young girl’s murder, but the real story lies with Carl Iverson, the lifetime of pain he carries with him, and Joe’s struggle to juggle the responsibility of his own life with that of his brother, who needs him more than ever.
The war stories Carl tells are horrifying, and tragically illustrate his confession that killing and murder are different things, and that he’s done both. There is a twist that readers may see coming, but that’s alright, since this is as much a character study as a mystery and coming-of-age story. It’s superbly done. Eskens is a practicing attorney, and he gracefully balances crackling suspense with a very humane story of courage and justice gone wrong, set against the backdrop of a very cold Minnesota winter.
Seventh Street Books
CFL Rating: 5 Stars