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Monday, September 26, 2011

Starvation Lake, by Bryan Gruley, c2009 ($15)

The lake areas of the Midwest seem so exotic to me. Yes, Oregon has lakes, too, but there are so many lakes and so many islands and so much of life revolves around those lakes and islands in the Midwest. William Kent Krueger and Steve Hamilton are the best known of the lake writers*, and now there's Bryan Gruley. Gruley is the Chicago bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, but he spent summers as a youth in an area not unlike Starvation Lake, the northern Michigan lake town of this book, and still maintains ties to that area.

Why do we need another lake writer? There is a definite sense of mystery associated with the deep, dark waters of a lake. The Scandinavian writers certainly know it. Karin Fossum and Arnaldur Indridason, for instance, used lakes to great effect in some of their books. The harsh winter season, in which things are frozen until the spring thaw, provides great metaphorical sustenance as well. Although, in my opinion, these books are best read on blazingly hot summer days, a good book is never out of order. Starvation Lake is a good book.

There are many plot elements that other writers have used before. There have been disgraced journalists -- anyone remember Stieg Larsson's Mikael Blomqvist? -- frozen lakes giving up their secrets, wise-cracking protagonists, sports talk, and villains with similar bad mojo. Gruley, however, puts it all together in a well-written package.

Gus Carpenter used to work for The Detroit Times, a big city, big-time newspaper. It takes a while before we know the reason he left The Times. All we really need to know up front is that he left with a cloud hanging over him. He returns to his hometown, Starvation Lake, Michigan, a town hanging on the edge of Starvation Lake, the lake. The story is set in 1998, when Gus is 34. (Why is it set in 1998? Would the book have shriveled to nothing if everyone had a cell phone and CCTV?) Gus has gone to work for the town newspaper, The Pilot, as its associate editor. It's a quiet town with quiet news, and usually the only news challenge Gus faces is navigating to his desk in the small office. Then everything Gus knows is upended over a period of a few days in February.

A snowmobile is uncovered at the edge of one of the lakes in the area. It belonged to the legendary kids' hockey coach, Jack Blackburn. A few years before, the town had mourned Jack's death in a snowmobile accident, although the snowmobile and his body were never found. Here's the snowmobile, but it's poking out of Walleye Lake. Everyone knows Jack drowned in Starvation Lake.

Gus was the goalie for Starvation Lake's high school hockey team, the one that almost won the state championship. If only Gus hadn't choked. Jack Blackburn was his respected coach. After that loss, Gus and Jack's relationship dwindled into nothingness until Gus moved on to college and his newspaper job. Since returning to Starvation Lake, Gus has had to relive that awful moment over again because the townspeople have never forgotten or forgiven. Because he's a glutton for punishment, or because he really loves the game, 34-year-old Gus plays in an adult league as a goalie.

When the snowmobile re-appears, Gus's life shifts into overdrive. As a newsman, he can't pass up on the drama of the bullet hole discovered in the snowmobile's body. As a hockey player, he needs to know what happened to his coach. As a former reporter for "The Detroit Times," he has some unfinished business in the form of a potential lawsuit over his last investigation. His mother, his best friend "Soup," his ex-girlfriend and current sheriff's deputy Darlene, and many of the town's citizens who stayed put while Gus left seem to be hiding secrets.

Gus is dealing with issues far beyond Journalism 101. He must determine what he owes to the public's right to know and what he owes to the people he has known and trusted all his life.

With the exception of the useless prologue, Starvation Lake intriguingly unravels a small town's secrets but also acknowledges the strength that comes from a small community.

* Although let us not forget the truly mysterious In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien.

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