"The first time Jude Allman died, he was eight years old." That's what I call a great opening line for a novel. What makes it even better is that all of the subsequent lines deliver on the hope contained in that first sentence --- the hope that the rest of the book will prove to be as strong as its beginning. What makes it astonishing is that this is T.L. Hines's first novel, and like a musician with perfect pitch, he hits each note --- the critical elements in a novel --- with the precision and instinct of a master.
First, there's the riveting and genuinely suspenseful plot. Jude Allman has died three times and lived to tell about it. But he'd rather not tell about it anymore, so he leaves the small Nebraska town where he has become both a legend and a celebrity and starts a new life in Red Lodge, Montana, as its under-the-radar school janitor, Ron Gress. His life would be relatively uneventful were it not for the one-night stand that gave him a son --- and the paranoia that compelled him to board up the windows of his house with Sheetrock. But then he begins having visions of situations in which people are about to die, and his reclusive life takes a very public turn. At the same time, someone is abducting children in the surrounding area, and it becomes a matter of time before the kidnappings touch Red Lodge. Ron Gress/Jude Allman unwittingly holds the key to the crime, but discovering the key and using it in time is another matter altogether. The pacing of the gripping story never falters; the interplay between fast-paced action and much-needed rest is flawless.
Next up is the characterization, and in this area Hines also excels, populating his story with such finely-drawn characters that not even fans of novelist Anne Tyler, one of the best contemporary creators of believable characters, will be disappointed. Ron Gress is so fully developed, so three-dimensional, so convincingly human that you may have to remind yourself that he's not real. The moments he spends with his son, Nathan, are achingly authentic and among the best scenes in the book, though calling any one portion of this book the "best" does a disservice to the rest of it. The scenes with Nathan face stiff competition from segments that involve Jude and his father; Hines mercifully avoids the trite "my father never loved me" backstory that ruins so many tales of father/son conflict. Nathan's mother, Rachel, who becomes increasingly skittish over Ron's behavior; Kristina, a stranger who somehow knows that Ron is really Jude; Chief Odum, the cop who is determined to nab the abductor; fellow janitor Frank, with his cryptic comments about the "project" in his basement --- every character rings true. Hines even nails the dialogue, an element that often trips up less-experienced fiction writers.
Let's see, that leaves such factors as point of view (never confusing), setting (been there; it's just as he describes it), showing versus telling (no annoying narration), structure (couldn't be better), and so forth (whatever is left, Hines got it right, including the blissfully restrained spiritual perspective). And finally, the writing itself, which is tight and clear and fluid. I doubt there's a wasted word in the entire book. Hines also inserts some subtly humorous moments here and there, just when you need a reason to lighten up a bit and release your grip on the tension-filled storyline.
When it comes to satisfying suspense, WAKING LAZARUS is about as good as it gets. I highly recommend this book, without reservation.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on November 13, 2011