The infiltration of war into the daily lives of Americans which was experienced during the Vietnam War is, in many ways, an ideal backdrop to explore the theme of justice. One could hardly avoid the bloody images of the conflict on their televisions. Nor could they escape the nightly body counts or the maiming of those who returned. This created room in the American psyche to question the legitimately of a social framework, which could allow sovereign power to be wielded so vulgarly and toward such questionable ends. In his new novel, Well Deserved, Michael Lloyd Gray uses the capillary permeation of the war quit deftly to illustrate this exact theme. In doing so, he has created a puissant narrative that urges readers to rethink their relationship to the legalistic structures of social power. For the effort he was awarded the 2008 Sol Books Prose Series Prize and deservedly so.
Set in an insular and bucolic corner of central Illinois, Gray’s book lures the reader into a tranquil Grant Wood-esque setting which genuinely and perfectly reflects the illusion held by a remote population that thought itself able to remain sheltered from the world beyond it. With the war raging abroad, the pastoral town of Argus has this illusion disabused when Dominick Cruikshank, a young veteran, returns to his hometown. When chance bring Dominick, who is still dealing with the emotional tumult from his experiences of war, across the path of Jessie, a seemingly innocuous small time dope dealer, a friendship quickly develops, fueled by each other’s struggle for recognition and human understanding. However, the harmlessness of Jessie and his business is revealed by Gray to be a near deadly fallacy for Dominick. Besides leaving Dominick shot and dying, the actions of these two also effect, in a intimate way, the lives of two other previously unconnected individuals—Art, a former Chicago police officer, turned Argus sheriff and Nicole an aspiring psychologist, imprisoned in the small, Midwestern town, a prisoner of the limitations imposed on her by poverty, female repression and a small town psychological orientation. This unlikely coadunation of the lives of the four forces Art to chose between the law he is paid to uphold and his own personal sense of justice. The result is as surprising as it is poignant and lingers in the reader as an almost physical sensation well after the book is finished.
While the characters of Well Deserved may be a bit familiar, Gray uses them skillfully to methodically unfurl the grim reality of the arbitrariness of justice. The thematic success of the book is also complimented by Gray’s moving use of an intertwined narrative which incorporates the perspective of each of the four main characters. Gray is able to articulate these characters in a marvelously authentic way, exposing the complexity of their being and relating them to something easily recognizable in the human experience. Gray has truly hit upon the profundity of human existence and the complexity or moral reasoning in this book. But, he has done so without villanizing either his protagonists or antagonists and without the pretension of a judgmental tenor. Instead, Gray simply asks the questions and leaves the reader to find their own answers. Furthermore, he as managed to do this in a way which restrains the reader with a subtle suspense, holding them in the story which is so incredibly realistic and identifiable one is not even aware of it as the pages quickly loop past. –Anthony Squiers
Reviewer Anthony Squiers:
Anthony is a writer and literary critic. His debut novel, Madness and Insanity was released in 2009. Anthony is also pursuing a Ph.D. in political theory from Western Michigan University . His research interest is in the social/political thought of Bertolt Brecht.