Review of unabridged audiobook version narrated by John MacDonald, 1993, Books on Tape
Reading Level: Young Adult
Release Date: March 1993
Pages: 422 pages
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry
Mark Sway is an 11-year-old boy who lives with his impoverished 30-year-old, divorced mother, Dianne, and 8-year-old brother, Ricky, in a run-down trailer park in Memphis. His entire life changes in the most dangerous possible way when he tries to prevent a depressed lawyer, Jerome Clifford, from committing suicide. Mark and Ricky have sneaked off to smoke cigarettes in the woods near their home, when they witness Clifford trying to kill himself by piping the carbon monoxide from exhaust fumes into his car. While attempting to remove the rubber hose blocking off the car’s tail pipe, Mark is caught by Clifford, who roughly grabs and slaps Mark and forces him into the car. He tells Mark that he has two choices, die peacefully with him from the fumes, or be shot in the head with Clifford’s pistol. During this ordeal, Clifford, who is stoned on booze and pills, babbles out the fact that he is killing himself before he can be murdered in a much more barbaric manner by one of his most terrifying mob clients, Barry, “the Blade,” Muldanno. Barry has assassinated a U.S. Senator, regrets that he impulsively revealed to Clifford the location where he stashed the Senator’s body, and plans to rectify his mistake by silencing Clifford.
Mark manages to escape moments before Clifford shoots himself, which both he and Ricky witness, but his troubles have just begun. Ricky becomes catatonic from post-traumatic stress and has to be hospitalized. And before very long, Mark is under threat from hired thugs associated with Barry the Blade, as well as a set of ruthless FBI officers and the United States Attorney in New Orleans, Roy Foltrigg. All of these antagonists firmly (and correctly) believe that Mark knows where the Senator’s body is buried. Barry wants to save himself from a murder rap. The FBI agents are under massive pressure from the Director of the FBI to get this case resolved ASAP. And Foltrigg mainly hopes to grab credit and headlines for solving the most high profile case of his lifetime in order to advance his political ambitions. As a result, the FBI agents and Foltrigg are determined to force Mark to testify, regardless of the mob threat to his life and that of his mother and younger brother. Mark’s only hope to protect himself and his family is to become the pro bono client of Reggie Love, a 52-year-old, recovering alcoholic, female attorney who has only been practicing law for four years.
Mark Sway is clearly an intellectually and emotionally gifted child, who is mature beyond his years to a remarkable degree. I personally found his precocity well motivated. As the eldest child of a brutal, alcoholic father, he has been the protector of his mother and younger brother since age six, a situation which tends to make any child old before his time. Knowing these facts, and seeing Mark in action, as a brave and compassionate human being, it is easy to admire and empathize with him.
Reggie Love has been through hell in her own life as well. She experienced a terrible divorce from a horrendously vindictive husband that beggared her, estranged her from her two children, and resulted in overwhelming struggles with depression and alcoholism. Fortunately, she came out on the other side, made stronger by a personal mission to save abused women and children as much as possible from the kind of suffering at the hands of the legal system that she herself endured. Thus, it is quite believable to me that she becomes very attached to Mark, and is willing to go all out to rescue him from a horrendously dangerous situation where he is, literally, facing a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” type of dilemma.
This book, like most thrillers, whether legal, medical or political, is written from omniscient point of view, which involves the author, throughout the book, slipping into the thoughts of innumerable characters besides the main character, Mark. I normally read novels with only one or two points of view, so it was a bit disconcerting at first getting used to all the head hopping, especially being forced to wade through the evil thoughts of the villains. What held me interested in the story in spite of this factor is the most significant relationship in the book, that of Mark and Reggie.
For my taste, the most compelling popular fiction, regardless of genre, is character driven and involves a love story. It can be horizontal (a co-equal relationship based on romance or a “buddy” relationship) or vertical (a top-down relationship between a parent and child, mentor and mentee, teacher and student, protector and protected one, etc.). Or it can be a combination of the two. In this case, the love relationship is between Reggie, the fierce defender of embattled children, and Mark, the brave, determined child she is rescuing. In addition, as young as he is, Mark also has a top-down, vertical relationship with both his mother and his brother, and his main goal in this story is to keep them safe at all costs. Mark and Reggie are both what I call Positive Warriors, heroic characters who get into trouble because they are honorable, compassionate and brave, which makes them the most sympathetic type of protagonists possible in any kind of popular fiction.
There are also three subcharacters in the book who are particularly well drawn and sympathetic: Reggie’s 80-year-old mother, Momma Love; Judge Henry Roosevelt of the Memphis juvenile court, and Clint Von Hooser, Reggie’s personal assistant.
I saw the 1994 movie made of this book years ago, which stars Susan Sarandon as Reggie, Brad Renfro as Mark, Ossie Davis as Judge Roosevelt, and Tommy Lee Jones as Roy Foltrigg. Foltrigg is played much more sympathetically in the movie than in the book, where he is a narcissistic jerk. In the movie his character is conflated with another more positive character, no doubt for brevity’s sake, and that combined with Tommy Lee Jones’s charisma as an actor transforms him from a buffoonish, minor villain into a worthy opponent for Reggie.
This book was first published in 1993, and I was fortunate enough to borrow from a friend the CD’s for the audiobook version from that same year, which is narrated by the extremely talented John MacDonald. Unhappily, that version is very hard to find these days. All that seems to be listed on Audible’s website is an abridged version. John MacDonald’s narration wonderfully brings each character to life. He capably handles regional accents and characters of all ages and both genders, most especially the high-pitched, strained voice of eight-year-old Ricky, the strong tenor of 11-year-old Mark, the deep, resonant baritone of Judge Roosevelt, all the various male FBI agents, and the female voices of Reggie and Momma Love and several minor, female characters.
I rate this book as follows:
Thriller Plot: 4
Love Relationship Plot: 5
Audiobook Narration: 5