Conway Sax was once one of my favorite protagonists, a recovering alcoholic with a small garage financed by his sober girlfriend, Charlene, who is attempting to guide him back to a healthy relationship and the extended family of her two daughters, Jessie and Sophie. But each time Conway goes out on a limb for another quasi-recovered alcoholic, he loses touch with the reason his life has changed for the better. A member of an AA group called the Barnburners, these particular “old school” members conduct a “Meeting after the Meeting” to direct a more vigorous agenda: they always go the extra mile to help another Barnburner. Currently Sax is riding herd on newcomer Gus Biletnikov, an ex-junkie/alcoholic who reminds Conway of his estranged son, Roy, that identification serving as the rationale for Sax’s endeavors on Gus’s behalf. (Although Gus is barely sober and not a Barnburner, he seems to fall sufficiently into the category to justify Sax’s involvement.)
There’s really nothing new here, other than the changing cast of characters and a few of the old standards, including Sax’s friend Randall Swales, a vet with a prosthetic foot, the son of Conway’s former parole officer, Luther. Randall provides a voice of reason when Conway is veering too far in the wrong direction. Despite Gus’s severely dysfunctional family—which includes paranoid father Peter married to a much younger second wife, Rinn, their new baby, Emma, and the baby’s nanny—Sax’s attention is focused on the boy’s more recent activities with Teddy Pundo. Teddy is the wannabe-gangster son of Charlie Pundo, a real mobster now gone legit, owner of a jazz club. Gus’s predilection for drug abuse has put him directly in Teddy’s path, consequently Sax’s first avenue of interrogation.
A shotgun-wielding killer plays a prominent role in a drama that has roots far deeper than first appears, twisted connections between characters that go back years and set the stage for the repercussions that follow on Sax’s watch. Juggling what he has learned about Teddy and his muscle, a cold-eyed man Conway nicknames the Boxer, with the downright bizarre relationships of the Biletnikov family—not to mention Gus’s old using buddy, Brad—and Conway is caught in a maze too complicated to be untangled without more information. Along comes petite Houston con man Donald Crump, with a few shocking answers and promises of more to come at a secret meeting with Sax. Enter a shotgun, a bloody crime scene and the flashing lights of cop cars as Conway sits in the middle of a frame.
Following his own intuition, Conway hovers between full-throttle action and a “red mist” of rage that overtakes him at particular moments. Even Sax’s near-daughter, Sophie, is caught up in the escalating violence forcing Conway to acknowledge a depraved scenario that has generated the spate of deaths, as he is pushed beyond even the limits he has exceeded of late. Occasionally indulging in the humor of his situations while helping others, even that respite has no traction in this tale. With few exceptions, there are no likable characters in view, not even Conway, as Charlene is forced to tell her daughter after a grueling escapade, “He just isn’t a good man.”
Regardless of the hard cases he comes in contact with during this entanglement, Conway doesn’t fare much better when compared to the other monsters at hand, his justifications, apologies and guilt a familiar refrain for a man too attracted to the wild side just shy of that thin line dividing him from the alcoholic abandon of the old days. Sax may be sober, but he doesn’t act sober—just dry. Perhaps Ulfelder has worn out the ruse of recovering alcoholic bad boy who can’t get it right. Conway needs a new approach if he’s going to appeal to readers who appreciate action but are weary of the same old antics dressed up in righteous vindication.