There have been some well-intended comparisons between THE TERROR OF LIVING, Urban Waite’s brilliant and fascinating debut novel, and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, Cormac McCarthy’s instant classic. Yes, there are some similarities between the two works, in the same manner that two forests on different sides of the world may share characteristics borne out of wholly different flora, fauna and the like. Surely, both narratives deal with evil as an unstoppable force headed on an irrevocable collision path with a less than unmovable good, and the consequences for all concerned. But Waite takes THE TERROR OF LIVING into a different direction, via a different road, that you will never forget.
Bobby Drake is a young and newly married deputy sheriff who is laboring under the self-imposed burden of the uneasy legacy of his father, an ex-law enforcement officer serving time in prison for his involvement in narcotics trafficking. Drake brings to his occupation a self-imposed duty to be everything his father was not. So it is that even on his days off, Drake is scouting, looking for evidence of drug smugglers in a rural area near Seattle, Washington, that is known as a dropoff point. Irony abounds as Drake’s vigilance results in the disruption of a drug pick-up that in turn begins a chaotic and violent spiral of events.
Drake captures one of the smugglers; the other, a reluctant career criminal named Phil Hunt, manages to escape but leaves the heroin behind. This is an intolerable mistake from the viewpoint of Hunt’s employers, who set a determined force of nature, Grady Fisher, upon Hunt with the aim of wringing what little use there is out of him and then eliminating him from all future equations. Fisher is a highly skilled killer for whom murder is an aphrodisiac, one that he gives himself over to with an addict’s lust.
Meanwhile, Drake allows himself to be reluctantly recruited by a somewhat off-kilter DEA agent into the search for Hunt. Fisher’s penchant for casual violence visited randomly upon those with the terminal misfortune to cross his path turns the rural area around Seattle into a killing field, while Drake, who is smarter than anyone thinks, follows Fisher’s bloody trail, blissfully unaware of how truly outclassed he is against a foe without conscience and possessed with a deadly skill set. Hunt would like nothing more than to turn his back on everything and start his life over with his wife, who remains loyal through everything.
Hunt’s fatal flaw, though, is his own conscience, which has the unfortunate habit of kicking in after the fact. This leads to the bloody denouement, which plays out on a quiet residential street at the book’s climax. A fateful decision is made that changes at least one set of lives irrevocably.
Waite asks an intriguing question: What if Drake had just let things happen? What if the flow of illicit commerce had continued uninterrupted? The issues of whether motive justifies irresponsible actions, and when and where the responsibility for one’s actions begins and ends, are being played out in current culture (AMC’s “Breaking Bad” immediately comes to mind), but perhaps no where is it addressed quite as effectively as within the pages of this novel.
The book and the author have been the subject of a great deal of hype in recent weeks. After reading THE TERROR OF LIVING, you will see that, if anything, it has been understated. Strongly recommended.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 28, 2011