Friday, October 4, 2019

Where Those Interviews Can Go: The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

One of my favorite assignments in the English composition class I teach to college freshmen asks them to conduct three interviews, ideally with their oldest living relatives. I offer to let them "borrow a senior citizen" if they don't have candidates either in their own families or at least those of their friends or roommates. Invariably, when they write their end-of-semester reflection, they mention the interview experience as a highlight of the semester.

When I mentioned this project to a book club friend, she told me I had to read The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens. The protagonist Joe Calvert is fighting the odds after a difficult family life. He never knew his father, and his mother is an alcoholic who often leaves his autistic half-brother unattended, putting increasing pressure on Joe. But he has worked to save money for college, where he ends up in a biography class with a course-long assignment, similar to mine. Since he knows none of the older generation of his family, he goes to a local nursing home seeking a subject to interview.

Resistant at first to his project, the personnel match him up with Carl Iverson who, after spending thirty years of a life sentence for the rape and murder of a fourteen-year-old girl, has been paroled, when he reaches the final stages of cancer. While Joe at first finds him repugnant, based on Iverson's alleged crime, he begins to see holes in the story that led to his sentencing and begins to investigate the crime himself.

He ends up working with his neighbor Lila, who ignored him but befriended his brother Jeremy. Over the course of the narrative, he struggles to keep up his studies and hold down his job in a bar, with obstacles from his alcoholic mother, who often leaves Jeremy alone and defenseless.

Eskens weaves an intriguing story that reminds readers that everyone has a story--and it's not usually the story we expect to hear.

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