BookBrowse Reviews The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie

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The Drifter

by Nicholas Petrie

The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie X
The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jan 2016, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2016, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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An explosive thriller debut introducing Peter Ash, a veteran who finds that the demons of war aren't easily left behind.

Petrie's stunning debut, The Drifter, is an intelligent thriller with a gut punch. Shocked and deeply saddened by news that his best friend and former Marine Sergeant Big Jimmy Johnson (aka, Big) has taken his own life, ex-Lieutenant Peter Ash does the thing his conscience dictates. He picks up and travels halfway across the country to see what he can do to help Dinah, Jimmy's widow, and his two sons.

Ash's superpower is honor and he wears it like a Kevlar bodysuit, protecting him from the crapstorms that exist in the current state of affairs both globally and domestically. He's served rotations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but only after he studied economics at Northwestern University and declined a Goldman Sachs job offer. Econ may have taught him how the world really works, but his tours overseas taught him that duty to God and country are hollow promises. Few things in life count for him, but one that does is friendship; that and the truth that a Marine never leaves a man behind, dead or alive. And he feels a certain guilt that he never followed through on his promise to visit Jimmy stateside.

But after he got back he found that the wars had left him with certain residual effects. A constant static thrums in the back of his brain, and flares whenever he can't see the sky. Indoors it escalates, accompanied by cold sweats, muscle cramps and all-out panic. Makes it hard to go home. So he doesn't. Most recently home has been an Oregon mountain range with a base inside his tricked out 1968 Chevy C20 pickup truck. Ash can't even sleep inside the enclosed truck bed because the walls are too close. So come nightfall if he's not under the stars his "lean, rangy, muscle and bone" body is crammed into the vehicle's front seat.

It's early November when he arrives at Jimmy's family's home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Because he knows she won't accept charity, Ash poses as an agent of a bogus Marine Death Benefit Program to help families with home repairs. The hundred-year-old house, in a declining working class neighborhood, has a dilapidated front porch and a bashed-in back door. The rickety porch is a real danger so he gets to work on it first.

After demolishing the dry-rotted porch he discovers, among the accumulated detritus, a one hundred-fifty-pound dog and a vintage hard-bodied Samsonite suitcase. The dog – "an animal of unsurpassed hideousness" who "smells like holy hell" – has been terrorizing the neighborhood, ridding it of feral cats one at-a-time. Jimmy's eldest son, 12-year-old Charlie, is terrified. But once Ash creatively wrestles and benignly incapacitates the animal, tying it to a tree, he turns his attention to the suitcase. Inside he finds $400,000 in banded cash plus several blocks of C4 explosive. "Oh, Jimmy," he ponders, "What did you do?"

Jimmy and Dinah's kids, Charlie and Miles, easily take to Ash as does the dog – which he thinks ought to be named either Daisy or Cupcake. Dinah, at first wary, eventually comes to trust him too. Not so much for most adults however - they don't trust Ash - especially authority figures. Which tends to count against him as he and Dinah endeavor to discover where the money came from – he doesn't tell her about the explosives – and to whom they should return it. Then, during the hunt, the plot twists and Ash begins to doubt whether Jimmy did in fact commit suicide as the cops had reported.

Petrie knows what he's doing as he paints Ash's ease with children and dogs. We like this guy from the get go. That Peter refuses to act on his physical attraction to his best friend's widow brings him into sharper nice-guy focus. He is intelligent, gentle when need be and has a sharp wit. We're rooting for him even if he occasionally behaves as if he's still in a war zone. Ingrained behaviors are hard to shake.

But it seemed strange, now that they'd all been to war, after all those years fighting and killing and bleeding and dying, that they were just supposed to go home and get a job, or go back to school, or whatever. Strange, definitely. And even if you made it home alive and relatively intact, you still carried it around with you, that powerful mix of pride and shame. For who you were. For what you'd done...How fucked up was it that walking inside [any enclosure] freaked Peter out, but the prospect of a fistfight or a shoot-out calmed him down?

The more we read about Peter's experience and that of his fellow veterans and the way they are treated as they return to civilian life, the more we are amazed that brain static seems like the least of the kind of problems they might endure. None are made any better by an American population absorbed with its own form of PTSD after suffering an economic fusillade that amputated their jobs, homes, savings, and retirement. It all plays into a story yanked from the headlines, elaborated with a skill and imagination that captures our heads and our hearts. We can ask no more of smart, sharp fiction.

Reviewed by Donna Chavez

This review was originally published in March 2016, and has been updated for the August 2016 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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