THE GOOD BOY makes demands of its readers. Author Theresa Schwegel drops you in the middle of a quietly simmering pot of domestic disaster straight from the jump. Then she works her way backwards in fits and starts and drops as the back story moves, somewhat at a snail’s pace, to catch up with the very immediate, suspenseful present.
Pete Murphy is a Chicago police officer who is assigned to the K9 unit, a position that he considers to be a punishment as opposed to a promotion. There is a reason for this: Murphy was part of a street hassle that also involved a bit of scandal that in turn led to a somewhat public embarrassment. The resulting fallout led to Murphy and his family having to give up their mortgaged home and “downsizing” to a well-used rental in a less desirable neighborhood. His family is less than able to stand the strain. Wife Sarah has some definite issues of her own --- some understandable, others not so much --- and spends a good deal of the book standing on Murphy’s last nerve. Teenage daughter McKenna is teetering into the world of full-blown adolescence, a difficult enough transformation without the additional uprooting and incidental publicity that arose from her father’s situation.
"[T]hose portions of the narration dealing with Joel and Butch as they sleep rough and live dangerously on the streets of modern-day Chicago make the novel well worth your time and attention."
However, it is 11-year-old Joel who feels the brunt of the family’s emotional trauma. Joel is brilliant, possessed of a remarkable memory while exhibiting some signs that he might be on the autism spectrum, though this is never specifically addressed. Then there is Butch, Murphy’s canine partner, who is undoubtedly the most emotionally stable of the ensemble. Murphy and Butch surely have an emotional bond, but it is Joel who is truly attached to the dog.
So it is that two things occur in rapid order in THE GOOD BOY. The first is that Murphy’s participation in a routine traffic stop puts him back into the very unfavorable spotlight of publicity while reopening public memory of his involvement in the prior incident that resulted in his fall from grace. The other is that McKenna’s association with bad companions --- you can see it coming for several chapters --- culminates in her sneaking out of the house to go to what used to be called a “wild party.” Joel, who is concerned for his older sister, takes Butch and follows her. When several trouble points converge and things go badly wrong, Joel and Butch find themselves on the run through the mean streets of Chicago, as Joel attempts to reach the one adult in a position of power who will listen to him. It is this sojourn across several miles of the city that forms the meat and heart of THE GOOD BOY.
Joel is not what one would call street-smart in the classic sense, but he knows enough to get by. His greatest strength, however, is that he looks after Butch at his own expense; Butch, of course, returns the favor, thus the two of them are able to traverse the city by hook and crook as Joel attempts to reach his unlikely destination. Meanwhile, Joel’s parents are understandably frantic, even as the family threatens to capsize under the pressure of their other problems. Murphy begins a desperate search through the darkest and seediest recesses of the city, pursuing a slim trail that he hopes will lead to his son, little knowing that he actually may be putting himself and his loved ones into even greater jeopardy.
THE GOOD BOY is reminiscent of a number of tales --- THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY (the book, not the Disney movies) and The Warriors (the movie, not the book) --- but is very much its own story. While uneven in spots, those portions of the narration dealing with Joel and Butch as they sleep rough and live dangerously on the streets of modern-day Chicago make the novel well worth your time and attention.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 8, 2013