Saturday, May 26, 2018
Books

Review: Thorn is unstoppable in James W. Hall's thriller 'Big Finish'

The Big Finish, the 14th novel by James W. Hall about reclusive Florida knight-errant Thorn, is a wonderfully relentless high-octane thriller. But let me warn you: It will put you off your pork chops.

Two books back, in Dead Last, Thorn discovered (much to his surprise) that he had a pair of sons, adult twins conceived during a brief fling decades before.

In the last book, Going Dark, Thorn discovered that one of them, Flynn Moss, had become involved with a group of radical environmentalists called Earth Liberation Front. When their plan to shut down the nuclear plant at Turkey Point went awry, it was up to Thorn to rescue not only Flynn but a big chunk of the population of South Florida from a possible meltdown.

At the end of that book, Flynn chose to disappear in to the eco-underground with Cassandra, the charismatic ELF leader, leaving Thorn to sit at home in Key Largo and fret about his son's welfare.

That's just what he's doing as The Big Finish begins, about a year later. The only communication from Flynn has been a series of blank post cards sent to the office of Thorn's best friend, Sugarman, who Googles the locations and finds they're related to community protests about environmental depredations. The cards provide Thorn with a kind of log of Flynn's work with ELF.

The latest one, though, offers no such link. The image is of the Neuse River near Pine Haven, a tiny town in an unlovely, economically depressed eastern corner of North Carolina, and Sugarman can find no news about it. More concerning is the two-word message this card bears: "Help me."

There's no question Thorn will respond. "Thorn had been at this precise point so many times before, feeling the first click of gears meshing, the revving heart, the flutter in his blood. Another long stretch of tranquility interrupted. He no longer deluded himself about his ability to resist. This was who he had become. A hermit on call."

He's a hermit off the grid, though, one without a driver's license or any other form of ID, so he can't hop a plane. His car is too decrepit to make the trip, so Sugarman, a private investigator with useful skills, reluctantly agrees to drive him up — a solution Thorn welcomes until he finds out Sugarman is bringing along his girlfriend, the obnoxious Tina Gathercole, "wired and fidgety and a breathless talker," as well as an enthusiastic dope smoker.

They don't even get out of Florida before they're taken into custody (except for Tina, who takes off) by Madeline Cruz, a tough FBI agent with a mysterious mission. It turns out that Cruz, too, had a child who joined ELF — and that she's headed for Pine Haven.

She has a couple of unusual associates for an FBI agent: a skinny rainbow-haired chatterbox named Pixie and her boyfriend, a formidable ex-con with a freakishly sensitive sense of smell who calls himself X-88. As Pixie tells a motel clerk:

"We're straight-edgers, hardline vegans."

"Really? Like what? You beat up meat eaters?"

"Sometimes."

That's not the half of it. But it will take a while to untangle just why they and Cruz, with Thorn unwillingly in tow (she sends Sugarman home), are headed to Pine Haven.

It quickly becomes clear why ELF was in Pine Haven, though. The town's biggest business is a gigantic hog farm where tens of thousands of pigs are raised for slaughter each year. Its waste lagoon alone, filled to the brim with pig feces and urine drained from the crowded barns, is four football fields long. Disposing of the waste means spraying it into the air, where it carries to the nearby town and settles onto homes and lawns and everything else.

ELF was there — but, Thorn learns, several of its members are dead, Flynn's whereabouts and condition are unknown, and one member is being held by siblings Webb and Laurie Dobbins, the pig farm's owners. They're desperate to retrieve a video ELF made of their real business: growing and processing angel's trumpet, an intensely hallucinogenic plant that happens to grow like gangbusters in pig poop.

Thorn will find out first-hand the effects of that drug. Hall has skillfully developed Thorn's character over the years, and here we're reminded of the problems of the aging hero — he does a lot more strategizing and a lot less brawling than he used to do. (And it's a lot harder for him to shake off a bad trip.) He's also more thoughtful, more likely to consider wider consequences instead of just, say, blowing up a pig farm.

But he's still unstoppable, especially when his son's life is at stake. The Big Finish more than lives up to its name with whiplash twists and turns, unexpected courage and a dash of sympathy for the devil — and a little spot of monkeywrenching at the Florida Governor's Mansion.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

 
Comments
Notable: Books for the beach

Notable: Books for the beach

NotableBooks for the beachSuit up: It’s time for a few new books built for vacation reading.By Invitation Only (William Morrow) by Dorothea Benton Frank is the latest serving of Frank’s trademark warm humor and engaging characters, set around two wed...
Published: 05/25/18
Judy Blundell brings on summertime on Long Island in ‘High Season’

Judy Blundell brings on summertime on Long Island in ‘High Season’

NightstandJudy BlundellSince it’s Memorial Day weekend, we decided to touch base with Judy Blundell, whose new book is High Season. The novel’s protagonist is Ruthie Beamish, director of a small museum who, to make ends meet, rents out her seaside ho...
Published: 05/25/18

Events: Pulitzer winner Jack Davis to discuss ‘The Gulf’ at Oxford Exchange

Book TalkUniversity of Florida historian Jack E. Davis (The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea) will discuss and sign his Pulitzer Prize-winning book at 1 p.m. May 27 at the Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Admission $5, applicable towar...
Published: 05/25/18
Review: Family matters in David Sedaris’ ‘Calypso’

Review: Family matters in David Sedaris’ ‘Calypso’

David Sedaris gets right to the point in the opening of the first essay in his new book, Calypso: "Though there’s an industry built on telling you otherwise, there are few real joys to middle age. The only perk I can see is that, with luck, you’ll ac...
Published: 05/24/18
Review: Strait-laced writer Michael Pollan explores psychedelics, and leaves the door of perception ajar

Review: Strait-laced writer Michael Pollan explores psychedelics, and leaves the door of perception ajar

Microdosing is hot. If you haven’t heard — but you probably have, from reports of its use at Silicon Valley workplaces, from Ayelet Waldman’s memoir A Really Good Day, from dozens of news stories — to microdose is to take small amounts of LSD, which ...
Published: 05/24/18
Bancroft: Philip Roth deftly explored male lust, Jewish identity, American history and politics

Bancroft: Philip Roth deftly explored male lust, Jewish identity, American history and politics

Philip Roth, one of the most potent voices in American fiction, died Tuesday night of congestive heart failure in a New York City hospital. He was 85.Mr. Roth was the last man standing of a generation of fiction writers sometimes called "the great wh...
Published: 05/23/18

Events: Tarbell.org founder Wendell Potter to discuss, sign book

Book TalkTarbell.org founder Wendell Potter (Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It) will discuss and sign his book at 4 p.m. May 23 at the St. Petersburg Main Library, 3745 Ninth Ave. N.Applications are ...
Published: 05/21/18
The real stuff is how Tom Wolfe best used his write stuff

The real stuff is how Tom Wolfe best used his write stuff

Tom Wolfe’s best writing lifted real people into legend: car designers and astronauts and disciples of LSD. With that writing, Wolfe lifted himself into legend as well. The author of 16 books, including such bestsellers as The Right Stuff and ...
Published: 05/18/18
Review: In Stephen King’s ‘The Outsider,’ evil can’t be true but must be true

Review: In Stephen King’s ‘The Outsider,’ evil can’t be true but must be true

On a July day, Terry Maitland, one of the most popular men in Flint City, Okla. — high school English teacher, Little League coach, husband and father, recently named the town’s man of the year — attends a teachers convention in a city over an hour’s...
Published: 05/17/18

Events: Gilbert King to discuss ‘Beneath a Ruthless Sun’ at Inkwood in Tampa

Book TalkCutter Wood (Love and Death in the Sunshine State: The Story of a Crime) will discuss and sign his nonfiction book about a murder on Anna Maria Island at 6 p.m. May 14 at Bookstore1, 12 S Palm Ave., Sarasota.The Gulfport Historical Society p...
Updated one month ago