A dark and gripping novel of psychological suspense about a family man driven to unspeakable acts, in the vein of The Perfect Nanny and We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Thomas Martin was a devoted family man who had all the trappings of an enviable life: a beautiful wife and daughter, a well-appointed home on Long Island's north shore, a job at a prestigious Manhattan advertising firm. He was also a devoted son and brother, shielding the women in his orbit from the everyday brutalities of the world.
But what happens when Thomas’s fragile ego is rocked? After committing a horrific deed — that he can never undo — Thomas grapples with his sense of self. Sometimes he casts himself as a victim and, at other times, a monster. All he ever did was try to be a good man, but maybe if he tells his version of the story, he might uncover how and why things unraveled so horribly.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.40(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The billy club arrived with the first shipment of Christmas presents that year, one package among several stacked on the front porch. The snow had started in the late afternoon, and by the time I got home from work the lawn was dusted with powder. The girls were still out-ballet maybe, or a violin lesson. In the hush of the early dark, I knelt and gathered the gifts in my arms, then carried them into our house.
The club had made the long journey coastward from the home of an amateur craftsman in War Eagle, Arkansas, who'd advertised the club on eBay as an absolutely terrific tire and fish thumper. Carved from Ozark red cedar, the club was about the size of a T-ball bat, and it had a nice old-fashioned look to it, like something you'd hang in your study instead of your garage. Wrapped around the rich wood barrel, held in place by a rubber band, there was a sheet of paper-a letter from the seller, which I lost almost immediately. The missive must have been shuffled in with the old school flyers and grocery lists and holiday cards, tossed out with the rest of the paper ephemera that was always blanketing the kitchen counter.
But I remember most of what the letter said. It was a testimony of faith, one man's deliverance from death through the power of prayer. Stricken by pancreatic cancer, the seller had given up on life, but one day his wife had dragged him to church-long-sleeved in the August heat, trying to hide the yellowing of his skin-and there in the pew he had a revelation. He saw his entire life pass before his eyes, and that's when he knew that he was being protected by a power greater than himself. He began to weep. And when he got into his car to go home, he looked down and the yellow in his skin had disappeared. A few days later, his doctor told him his tumor was gone.
The seller signed off by calling me brother. He said my name was a blessing, that Thomas the apostle had doubted the Resurrection, but found his faith when he touched Christ's wounded body-a miracle! (I have seen the Caravaggio painting of the subject: old doubting Thomas, his forehead creased with awe as Christ grasps his wrist and guides his hand to his bloodless breast, one calloused finger probing the dark gap where the spear went in.) The prophet from War Eagle said that I should not doubt, that mercy was real, and my own miracle would come soon.
I remember reading the letter at the kitchen island, my dog nosing at my ankles, asking for his dinner. I had switched on Met Opera Radio-as I always did the moment I got home-and while I bore witness to this stranger's supposed healing and salvation and his promise of my own, I was treated to the end of the first act of Eugene Onegin. (It was the splendid 1992 Bychkov recording; Hvorostovsky is impeccable in the title role.) I folded the letter away as my wife and daughter bustled in through the side door, the sweet jangle of their chatter and the dog's exuberant yelps drowning out Onegin's warnings to Tatyana about self-control and inexperience, my dear girls' voices mingling with the chorus of the maids singing blithely in the garden, cold air exhaling off their bodies as they greeted me, the dog hurling himself at our shins.
Swimming. It had been swimming. I remember my daughter's wet hair, her dark curls still stringy and sodden against her neck and collar-the chlorine on her skin when she kissed me.
Earlier that year my agency had done a television spot for a cancer drug that supposedly added six months or more to the life spans of truly hopeless cases. The ad opens with a scene of a Mr. Rogers type, struggling to rouse himself from an easy chair, looking fretfully at the stoic face of the clock on the wall. Then it cuts to a woman escorting her elderly mother down a hall, their faces grim. That scene gives way to a handsome man lying in bed, too tired to notice his wife tidying around him.
These are the sick, the nearly dead, their worlds cool and colorless.
But then a sunburst comes sparkling into view, a constellation of gold that forms the name of the miracle drug. Honeyed droplets scatter and suffuse the air of each tableau, bringing life to each lost cause.
Now the Mr. Rogers type is sitting at a newly renovated kitchen counter, playing a game on a digital tablet with his grandson. His own son is chopping vegetables, sneaking a fond gaze at his old man. Now the woman is walking with her mother on a quaint downtown street lined with cherry blossom trees, their faces masks of bliss. Now the handsome man is waltzing with his wife at an outdoor wedding, his hand pressed to the small of her back. They are all alive, defiantly so.
In the last shot, these people find themselves gathered in a summer field, drawn together by some powerful, benevolent force. They look around, smiling cautiously, unsure if they know each other, but certain they belong there. Before them is a glowing golden obelisk, carved with the miracle drug's name. They all reach out their hands and step into the light.
That's what I did for a living. I spun stories, made things like death seem clean and manageable-attractive, even.
I don't really believe in any of it, of course. God, miracles, any of those fantasies. I believe in medicine and advertising, but even those realities aren't infallible. Sometimes the drug doesn't work. Sometimes people see through the story you're trying to sell.
The most earnest expression of faith I can tolerate is Wagner's masterpiece Tannhäuser. The titular hero of the opera is a talented court singer in thirteenth-century Germany, and when we first meet him he is ensconced in the sensual grotto of Venus, the pagan goddess of love and lust. Tannhäuser's appetites have finally been satisfied, and he longs for the wholesome joys of the world he left behind: the soft air of spring and the sound of church bells. He returns to the world of mortals, waking up in a valley outside the city and looking on in gratitude as a chorus of pilgrims passes by on their way to Rome. Tannhäuser's fellow singers welcome him back into court; the noble-hearted Wolfram persuades him by telling him that the virginal Elisabeth has been pining over him ever since he left. She will be overjoyed to see him again.
It should be a happy homecoming, but our histrionic hero cannot help himself. Invited to participate in a singing contest about the nature of love, he breaks into a hymn of wanton ecstasy, exposing his sins to all assembled. The court is appalled, and they condemn Tannhäuser to death, but saintly Elisabeth shields him with her body, crying out that the wretch must be allowed to seek salvation through atonement. He must make his own pilgrimage to Rome, and only then will he have the chance to be absolved.
As the curtain rises on the final act, it is evening in the valley. Autumn. Months have passed, and the good Wolfram watches poor Elisabeth pray, clinging to her last hopes. They hear the pilgrims approach, returning from Rome. As they sing of their journey Elisabeth searches each face, looking for TannhŠuser, but he is not among the faithful. She kneels in defeat; though Wolfram tries to guide her home, she tells him that her path leads toward heaven. She must intercede directly with God to save the man she loves.
At last Tannhäuser appears, haggard and pale. He tells Wolfram he has failed, that when he reached Rome and sought absolution from the pope, he was forever damned with an awful decree: As this staff in my hand, no more shall bear fresh leaves, from the hot fires of hell, salvation never shall bloom for thee.
Tannhäuser cries out for Venus, but Wolfram saves him by speaking Elisabeth's name, breaking the spell once and for all. As dawn comes over the valley, the funeral procession approaches, bearing Elisabeth's body. Tannhäuser kneels over her, begging with his last breath for her to pray for him. Through the death of the woman who loved him most, he has been redeemed. As our hero dies and the final curtain begins to fall, a young boy runs onstage wielding a flowering staff for all to see.
End of opera.
It's a sublime story of redemption. Even so, I find myself wondering whether it is actually an indictment of belief, a heartbreaking display of its limits. After all, the staff blooms with new flowers only after our hero has died.
So no, I cannot really say that I am a believer. I suppose I believe in mercy, most of the time, although I doubt I deserve it.
Even though I'm not a believer, for some reason I regret losing that letter from the man in War Eagle. I've often felt that if I could have it back, if I could just see the specifics of its language and revisit its turns of phrase, it would give me some answers about that time in my life. The letter had a crude poetry to it, a certain innocent passion that touched me, somehow. Re-creating it here, I know I've missed the heart of it.
I've considered writing to the man and asking him to send me another copy, but for all I know he's now dead of his supposedly cured cancer. I don't want to find out.
And of course, the letter could be nothing like I remember. Like an incantation in a dream that proves meaningless in the morning. I don't want to find that out either.
The billy club was for protection. Psychological protection, at least. There was a lot to worry about in those days. There were the things that horrified everyone, of course: assault rifle massacres at office parties, little girls blown to pieces at pop concerts. Everyone could agree that kind of operatic bloodshed was terrible.
But there were other things that inspired a different kind of fear, things that felt like lead coiled in my gut-the subtler signs of impending catastrophe. Like the paramilitary policemen-America's own Schutzstaffel-mixed in with the naked cowboys and Mickey Mice and painted ladies in Times Square, close to my office, or the gaunt hunger strikers camped out in the international terminals of airports. Even worse, there were the things that you didn't see out in the world, things that wouldn't even make it onto the news-the things you had to find out for yourself on message boards, down rabbit holes of hyperlinks, reading with parched eyes long after midnight. The dread of all that never went away, and it was easy to believe that my life as I knew it was just a paper facade, waiting to be punctured by horrors that could take me from my family-or worse, take my family from me.
My girls would have told you I wasn't paranoid or crazy. They might have joked about it, sure-my wife rolling her eyes, my daughter screwing her pretty face into that tasted-a-lemon look she'd paste on when she thought something was funny or ridiculous.
Daddy, she'd admonish me. Don't be so silly.
I could be silly, but I wasn't crazy. Our lives were good-great, even. We were happy and secure. We had everything we needed.
There was no way for anyone to know-least of all me-that it would all end the way it did.
You've seen us, I'm sure-in the newspapers, on television, on the web. You've probably seen the photograph of us on the beach, even though it's at least two or three years out of date. It's sunset, so the flash is on, bleaching out the angel wings of our white linen shirts and highlighting the rosy clouds over the slate ocean behind us. My wife is farthest from the camera, laughing as she begins to peel away from us toward the surf, her slender left arm thrown out in some kind of salute. My daughter is between us, her arms linked tightly with ours, grinning with missing teeth. She was nine or ten, I think. And I'm in the foreground, trying to look dignified, my chin raised in satisfaction and my eyes bright with pride.
That's me. That's us. It feels like another life now.
Everyone uses the same photo, and they all write increasingly far-fetched variations on the same themes. It seems that after the initial flurry of coverage-after the piece-by-piece assembly of the picture puzzle of events-each new analysis must justify its existence with the promise of fresh insight. They use words like self-righteous, paranoid, disappointed, anomic. They write of revenge, of altruism-of the plight of women and the plight of men. And so on and so on forever and ever, because the puzzle is always incomplete. The pieces refuse to fit; the mirror stays fogged.
I used to keep up with what was written, but after a while I got tired of all the competing mutations of the story. None of them were ever quite true.
I have my own struggles with understanding exactly what happened. Sometimes I think I am a victim of circumstance. Sometimes I think I am a monster. Most often, I think I am like TannhŠuser himself-a deeply flawed man who sacrifices everything in an act of desperation, a sinner who can only gain salvation through the death of his most beloved.
Of course, I know it's unforgivable to speak of my own pain. How can I even admit that I suffer, when I can still see their faces before me?
Then again, I am the only one who can tell this story. I am the only one who can speak of the tragedy that befell us.
I know it would make more sense to start at the beginning. That's how these things always start. The problem is that I'm not sure where the story really begins-how far back I have to go to find the rotted root, deep down in the blackened soil. It may have begun with the billy club, or with the other terrible things that happened that year. Or it may have started even earlier than that. Maybe it began with the happy years with my wife and daughter, or even in my own childhood.
I've never liked beginning new projects. It has always felt like hiking up a hill under a low gray sky, standing around a featureless clearing. I can build anything, and nothing stands in my way, but I have no idea where, or how, to begin. Every choice feels hollow and insufficient, like kicking up clouds of silt that settle back into the ground.
Reading Group Guide
1. The first line of the novel is, “The billy club arrived with the first shipment of Christmas presents that year, one package among several stacked on the front porch.” Why do you think the author chose to begin the novel this way? What can you learn about Thomas and his life from early descriptions of his house and his routines?
2. Throughout the novel, there are indications that Thomas may not be the man he purports to be. Did you at any point suspect Thomas might be capable of the acts he commits? What clues can you identify that give us insight into how the story will end?
3. We only get Thomas’s side of the story, but we learn a lot about Miriam through his eyes, and through her dialogue. Why do you think Miriam fell in love with Thomas, and why has she chosen to remain with him?
4. Thomas’s sisters are highly unusual, almost childlike in their arrested state of development. Why do you think they are the way they are? How does their development relate to Thomas’s persona?
5. Thomas is an opera buff, and the author threads many operatic references through the text. What effect does this have on the narrative? How did it influence your conception of Thomas’s character?
6. Does the story of A Good Man remind you of any real-life stories you’ve heard? In what way? What are some of the common elements between these similar stories?
7. Is Thomas a good man? Why or why not? What would the definition of “a good man” be, both in your estimation, and in the world of the novel?
8. What does the author’s treatment of Thomas’s character reveal about traditional notions of masculinity? Did the book make you think about the different roles that men and women play in heteronormative domestic spheres? Do Thomas and Miriam seem to have differing ideas about their own gender roles?