Michael Collins’ The Keepers of Truth is a brutally clear-cut and extremely depressing book set in a small industrial town in the late seventies. The once bustling town, where
"everyone worked in the factories," was dependent on manufacturing cars, sheet metal, mobile homes, washers and dryers, frame doors and steel girders for bridges and skyscrapers.
"Factories were our cathedrals, pushed up out of the Great Plains," but then the industrial depression came,
"production stopped" and the factories were abandoned. Unemployment, poverty, despair and suicides
now plague the town.
The life of the protagonist, Bill, a cub reporter for the decaying town‘s only newspaper
-- Daily Truth -- mirrors the hopelessness of the town and the struggle of the newspaper, which has little local news to report to and must compete with the immediacy of television and the presence of a beautiful anchorwoman -- the
"town oracle...always on location": Linda Carter doing "Eyewitness News." Bill's mundane job has him bored,
"creating postscripts to a dead town" and writing about firemen’s wives organizing a bakeoff.
He longs to be able to write
long metaphorical essays about the decay of the town and the death of the American dream.
Salvation comes in the form of a murder. The suspect is Ronnie Lawton, a tattooed burger flipper at Denny's. A severed finger belonging to Ronnie’s no-good father
is found. The search for the body triggers off a national obsession on television and transfixes the locals. Chasing Ronnie down, piecing together evidence and trying to solve the murder becomes both Bill’s catharsis and nemesis, which he must face to avoid the same fate of his father, whose suicide he has never gotten over.
Collins’ protagonist Bill is a deep thinker, a philosopher and a word-lover, and he does not miss an opportunity to play with words. In a tongue-in-cheek
tone, he describes why Sam is the newspaper's editor, "primarily because he knows words like immutable, and because he presses the flesh like a politician." Or that his own grandfather made a fortune making refrigeration units and his legacy
"still hasn’t melted."
And a cynic, too, as he dutifully records the calculating way the town tries to take advantage of the murder. The murder suspect himself asks his boss for a raise because the restaurant is packed with the young thrill seekers who come in to see him. Ronnie’s ex trashes him, hoping to inherit his home after he is presumably sent to jail.
For Sam, the story is a chance to put the limelight on the newspaper, which he can now sell at a higher price, and for Bill, whose stories hit the wires almost daily, it represents an escape from the town. Instead, he puts himself almost obsessively and compulsively into the murder situation by getting involved with Ronnie’s ex and her child. The sexual attraction between them
and the attachment of the child to him makes the ending predictable but hard to believe.
Collins intricately explores the juxtaposition of imageries of life and death, decay versus growth, and the old order yielding place to the new in the life of the town and his main characters. The book is engrossing, engaging, humane, compassionate and very well written. It‘s easy to see why The Keepers of Truth was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
© 2002 by
Sonia Chopra for Curled Up With a Good Book