I’ve caught up with an author many of you felt curious about when I first reviewed one of his novels.
I’ll Pray When I’m Dying by Stephen J. Golds
DO ALL SONS BECOME THEIR FATHERS?
Ben Hughes is a corrupt Boston Vice Detective and bagman for the Southie Mob.
Already desperately struggling with obsessive compulsions and memories of a traumatic childhood, his world begins to fall apart at the seams, triggered by the photograph of a missing child in the newspaper and the anniversary of his father’s death twenty years earlier.
‘I’LL PRAY WHEN I’M DYING’ IS THE STORY OF A BAD MAN BECOMING WORSE…
About the author:
Stephen J. Golds was born in London, U.K, but has lived in Japan for most of his adult life. He enjoys spending time with his daughters, reading books, traveling, boxing and listening to old Soul LPs. His novels are Say Goodbye When I’m Gone (Red Dog Press) Always the Dead (Close to the Bone) Poems for Ghosts in Empty Tenement Windows and the forthcoming collection Love Like Bleeding Out With an Empty Gun in Your Hand
I was offered an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.
I read a review Always the Dead by Stephen J. Golds a few months ago (you can check my review here), loved it, and when I shared my review on my blog quite a few people were intrigued and interested. Unfortunately, there were problems with that particular edition of the book, and it was removed from sale, but that didn’t diminish my interest and enthusiasm. Quite the opposite. Evidently, when I was given the opportunity to review a new novel by the same author, I couldn’t resist. And let me tell you, wow!
Many of my comments about the previous novel apply here as well. This novel is darker than noir, harder than hard-boiled, and the characters are true bad-asses, but they are far deeper and better drawn than most bad characters are in novels. I have said, more than once, that I don’t need the protagonist of the books I read to be good to feel engaged and to be able to root for them, and I have always had a bit of a soft spot for anti-heroes and unusual main characters. We might not like to be reminded that we all have a dark side, and that we can do bad things as well (sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes not so much), but as long as the characters’ behaviour can be understood at a certain level, and we can follow their journey and understand their motivations, no matter how little I like what they do, I’m happy to read about them. In the author’s note, at the end of the book, he explains that he decided to write this book because bad characters are always the antagonists, and very often we never get to understand why they do what they do; they are simply there as a foil to test the hero, a difficulty to be overcome, and he felt they should be given a chance.
Although the main protagonist of the novel is Ben Hughes, a British man who emigrated to the US (Boston) with his mother when he was quite young, the book also tells the story of his father, William, who was in the Met police, in London, and who, like his son, had survived a war but had been badly affected by it. The action and the setting are split into two timelines, separated by twenty years, as the father’s story takes place in 1926 and the son’s in 1946, in the days coming up to the 20th anniversary of his father’s death. There are many similarities in the behaviour of the two characters (Ben is a detective working for the Boston Police Department, but he has other fairly illegal occupations, and, in fact, he uses his job as a cover for the least pleasant aspects of his personality), and violence, corruption, threats, blackmail… are ways of life for both. But while we get much more of an insight into Ben’s motivations and traumas (growing up with a father like his was incredibly tough, and we get a first-row seat into some of his experiences through his memories and flashbacks of his childhood abuse), we don’t get to know that much about William. We don’t know anything about his life before the war, although we learn about a French woman’s betrayal and about the way the war seems to have dehumanised him, as he perceives violence now as an expedient way to get whatever he wants (because at least he is using it now in his own benefit, rather than for free at the behest of others). His alcohol consumption doesn’t help matters either, and he is unrepentant.
His son, Ben, suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and, as a psychiatrist and a reader, I must say I have never come across such a vivid and accurate depiction of the condition. The author explains that he feels this illness is always trivialized in popular media, and many aspects of it are never mentioned or delved upon, and he is absolutely right. I am sure many of us can bring to mind characters in books and movies who are supposed to suffer from OCD, but in most cases, it is only anecdotal, a minor hindrance, not something central to the character’s life. Although the story is told in the third person, Golds immerses us into the minds of the protagonists (we also get the point of view of some minor characters at times, but these are brief scenes, not quite as powerful or in-depth, although I particularly enjoyed meeting again a character from the other novel), and, in the case of Ben, that makes for a very uncomfortable experience. Beyond his actions (that yes, are extreme and hard, to say the least), we are locked inside a mind that is forever trying to fight repetitive thoughts (of contamination, paranoid thoughts, suspicions, guilt…), compulsions, engaging in routines (counting, repeating a poem) to guard against evil and doom, trapped by magical thinking… It is not surprising that his mind unravels as more and more of the things and people who moored him into his precarious existence fail him, and he cannot retain any sense of balance or equilibrium.
The writing style, the repetitions, the interruptions, the combination of short, sharp, and quick sentences combined with beautifully observed (even when ugly) descriptions of people and places, recreate the workings of the main character’s mind and reminded me somewhat of stream of consciousness, a writing technique often used by modernist writers. Although there is plenty of action, a plot thick with events and characters (from the lowest of the low to the highest echelons of society), this is not an easy linear read. The story follows a chronological order, alternating the chapters set in the 1920s and the 1940s, but there are many intrusions and flashbacks that can be disorienting and make the readers empathise (if not sympathise, as that is more difficult) with Ben. He is not good, as I said, and nobody could easily condone his actions, but he is trying to hold on to his soul and wants to help a child to make amends, as he wishes someone would have helped him all those years back. Even though the psychological insight into the protagonist’s psyche is one of the strongest points of the novel, the author also captures beautifully the atmosphere of both periods, the interactions between the characters, the way the gangs and tribes communicate, and the struggle for power (both inside and outside the law). I recommend people thinking of reading it to check a sample of the book, but I strongly advise giving it a good chance and not reading only a few lines, as it wouldn’t give them a fair idea of what the experience is like.
Despite my recommendation, I had to share a few lines with you:
Here, Ben describes how he feels when he sees a picture of a missing boy:
Something like a bullet in the back. A blade across the throat. A headache like a hammer blow to his skull and the start of a fever boiling underneath his clothes.
Distorted images passing through his head like the headlights of a speeding hearse down a black street.
And here, one of Ben’s routines:
He counted his steps in groups of seven. He reached the bakery in four sets. Four was an unlucky number. He turned around and walked back seven spaces, turned and walked back. Cancelling out the bad. Creating order….. He counted the steps up to her door. Twelve. Went back over two steps to make it fourteen. Two sets of seven. Felt relief.
As I had warned in my previous review, this is a novel that would fit perfectly in the publishing world of the era the main action is set in (the late 1940s), but not so much now. I had warned about possible triggers there, and here we have them all as well: brutal violence, corruption, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, child abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault… and anybody who might feel offended or upset by any of these subjects or preferring to read a book that fits into current political correctness sensibilities should be advised to stay away. This is a hard book, not without its moments of humour (very, very dark), and it deals in serious subjects, which, unfortunately, no matter how much the language we use has changed, are still present and as disturbing and ugly as ever. If you dare dig deep into the mind of a bad man and are not worried about, perhaps, getting to understand him and feel sorry for him, go on and read. Luckily, I have another one of Golds’ books waiting for me.
Thanks to the author for this opportunity, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to stay safe, keep reading, have as much fun as you can, and keep smiling!