Sometimes it feels like morality has become a fluid concept. There are few beacons illuminating for us what exactly is always right to do, and what is explicitly wrong. Perhaps this is partly due to the disappearance of morality tales in this modern world. I, for one, appreciate greatly a few life lessons mixed in with my entertainment. After all, isn’t part of why we read (or choose to experience anything intentionally) to receive a selective set of instructions on how to live—falling in line of course after escapism, pleasure, and gaining general knowledge about the world around us? To help fill that social void, author Patrick M. Garry has put forth into the world his new novel The Price of Guilt (Kenric Books), a “modern morality tale” about the destructive repercussions of self-imposed martyrdom.
Garry, a professor at the University of South Dakota who is currently a visiting scholar at University of St. Thomas, has written a number of other books, many of which have won awards—including the Jack Eadon Award for Best Novel, the Eric Hoffer Book Award for Fiction, two National Best Book Awards for Literary Fiction, an Editor’s Choice Award, an IBPP Next Generation Book Award, a National Indie Excellence Award for Fiction, and three International Book Awards for Literary Fiction. In 2008, Melissa Slachetka of the Twin Cities Daily Planet reviewed another book of his entitled A Bridge Back. The Price of Guilt was a finalist in two categories at the International Book Awards.
The novel begins in prison with Thomas Walsh, a once-prominent lawyer who in unaccustomed to being the one behind bars, and in the company of “thieves and murderers and rapists.” He is waiting for a visitor, a man named Donovan Killerman; someone who he hopes will answer the burning questions he has about the events leading up to his imprisonment, which have for him become a “prison within a prison, trapping [him] in an endless and unsolvable repetition of the chain of events which led [him] here.”
Over the course of the book it is revealed that Killerman was a schoolmate of Walsh’s. Though they were never, they are intimately linked by the bonds of cause and effect—when he was just a passive teen, hoping for popularity and going along with the crowd, Walsh and three friends set in motion a string of events which caused Killerman, the tender age of 13, to lose both his parents and his sight in the same day. Now an adult, Walsh is reminded of the accident at his 25th-year high school reunion, and decides to track down Donovan Killerman and somehow try to make up for what he did. However, he goes about it all wrong, behaving passively still as Donovan and his acquaintances ravel Walsh into a web of deceit and trouble.
While the book is solid enough in structure and writing (aside from a few typos and misspelled words), it seemed to fly by because there are no real mysteries here. As a reader I felt that I didn’t have to do any work, I just had to go along for the ride, which in the end made me feel just as culpable as Walsh in his misdeeds and missteps. One thing that Garry did very well was creating such an unlikeable, unsympathetic character. There were times that I felt vindictively excited for Walsh’s fall from his imagined grace, and couldn’t wait for the plot to give him what for, but other times Walsh’s unrelentingly bad attitude and misguided attempts to make amends were too heavy-handed and smothering. However, isn’t that the point of the morality tale? In them you know who is good and who is bad. The lines are clear; when it comes to morality nothing should be ambiguous…except the blurred lines surrounding complicated revenge schemes, I guess.