In the acknowledgements to his brilliant new novel, John Hart reveals that he almost walked away from it during the writing process. Whatever difficulties he experienced, however, are not evident upon reading it. IRON HOUSE is a complex but sure-footed work from first word to last, full of beauty and horror, love and violence, and all things in between.
"IRON HOUSE is not necessarily for the squeamish, but John Hart...creates prose shot through with a rough and raw beauty that is compelling and riveting even through its darkest passages."
The title refers to the Iron Mountain Home for Boys, an orphanage in the mountains of North Carolina. It is there that two brothers, Michael and Julian, lived an existence of deadly desperation. Strong and dangerous, Michael, even as a young child, defended his sickly younger brother from the taunts and almost indescribable cruelty of the other residents. Everything changed on the night when Abigail Vane, the young wife of an extremely wealthy U.S. Senator, came to adopt the boys. It was on that night that Julian killed one of his tormentors, an act for which Michael took the blame and then fled. Abigail left only with Julian, raising him in a sheltered world of privilege. Julian, however, is severely and, to some extent, irrevocably damaged emotionally.
Michael makes his way to New York City, where he lives on the streets until he is taken in by Otto Kaitlin, a powerful crime figure who sees much of his own early circumstances in Michael. Kaitlin raises Michael like a son and instructs him in the family business. Michael becomes a shadowy crime enforcer, a killer almost without peer, though he manages to retain a strong, if cold, inner moral code, even as Julian becomes renowned as the author of a successful series of children's novels. The brothers have no contact with each other for years, though Michael knows Julian's whereabouts and circumstances.
The worlds of both brothers are turned upside down when Michael decides he wants to leave the criminal world behind, motivated by the love of Elena, a beautiful and innocent woman who is carrying his child and knows nothing of his illegal activities. Although Kaitlin on his deathbed gives his blessing to Michael's departure, one does not leave the business that easily. Upon Kaitlin's death, Michael is immediately pursued by Stevan, Kaitlin's biological son who sees Michael as a threat, and by Jimmy, the enforcer who trained Michael and who is obsessed with knowing who the better killer is. In order to draw Michael out, they threaten to bring harm to Julian.
The danger to Julian takes Michael and Elena on a harrowing journey to North Carolina, where Julian lives with his adoptive mother and father in a secure compound that holds more than its share of secrets, past and present. Everyone, from Michael to Abigail to Julian to Jimmy, is hiding something. Before the events here have concluded, everything will change for all parties involved, and the process will not be a gentle one.
IRON HOUSE is not necessarily for the squeamish, but John Hart, as he has demonstrated in his previous books, creates prose shot through with a rough and raw beauty that is compelling and riveting even through its darkest passages. It is the plot, though, that is a joy to behold, a complex story that moves with an implicit purpose and is still dropping bombshells on the final pages. Hart, who started off strongly with his first novel and has continued to top himself with each successive effort, continues that pattern with IRON HOUSE.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 12, 2011