Thursday, February 1, 2018

Book Review: 'Pianos and Penance' by Dan Groat

In that face, in that woman, had he found the missing piece for the happiness puzzle, the missing dot that completed his life picture?

The force of Missouri author Dan Groat's pungent way with words is a running line with his books. He has been around life, viewing it from many vantages - degrees from three institutions of higher learning, a college math teacher, a cross country coach, bartender, laborer is disparate fields from high to low brow - but his own précis about his writing career are best from his own inimitable words: `I believe in the uniqueness of each person and that when given equality of opportunity, the individual is the best architect of their own destiny. I believe that societal problems are best remedied by small groups, preferably starting with the family; that government should do its best to protect its citizens without getting in the way of their lives; that Americans are not guaranteed happiness, but the right to pursue it and their society is both a benefit and a burden that requires giving as well as receiving; that acceptance of cultural diversity includes acceptance of a diversity of opinions because one opinion will never solve our problems; that change is not automatically good; that displaying a devotion to country is a virtue. I believe deeply in love, loyalty, individualism, self-reliance, liberty, ambition, hard work, competition with no guaranteed trophies, and that action as well as words is a form of expression.'

In his previous novel, A PUNCTUAL PAYMASTER, he explored racism in a pungent contemporary statement. In AN ENIGMATIC ESCAPE he addressed the concept of family. In MONARCHS AND MENDICANTS he introduced a series that deals with the plight of the homeless – the Gifford Ulrich Book 1. Having read all of his books it is without question that this reviewer states Dan Groat is an author of major significance, a writer unafraid to take on the tough topics of the times (and their reflections in our history) and place us well within the confines of the adventures through which he leads us. And in offering his tough stories he has that ability to wax poetic, as in the opening lines of that book 1: `Death was an old acquaintance. They had met before. They were not friends. Not enemies, either. They knew each other only well enough to nod in passing. It was an unpleasant nod. No hate. No fear. Nothing but uneasy recognition. In their past meetings, he had spoken with whispers, with screams. He was certain he had nothing else to say.'

And so we encounter Gifford Ulrich in Book 2 of this series, a homeless man living on the streets of St. Louis, and almost immediately Groat pulls him into our circle of caring. In his synopsis, Groat describes the plot as follows: ` Death follows Gifford Ulrich. He lost his fiancée to a drunken driver, his two Seal buddies to an IED in Afghanistan, and his three homeless companions to the streets of St. Louis. Now, his friend, Renee Edwards, who played piano and sang the blues in a local club, has been murdered. Hired by her father to investigate, Giff seeks help from a blind, retired homicide detective, a computer-geek neighbor, and an ex-military workmate. The team discover that other women have been killed in the same manner as Renee, and they work to find a connection despite the interference of a small-town police chief. They match wits with a ruthless serial killer and struggle to connect the dots before someone else dies. With his team in increasing danger, Giff is forced to rely on himself and his hunches in an interstate manhunt that draws him into a life-and-death trap. Pulled by his desire for both justice and revenge, he fights to uncover the unimaginable secret behind the killings.’

And after a terrifying travel through the grime of the streets and the inherent dangers, Groat allows a glow of redemption, and is able to bookend his novel with another passage of near poetry: “Remember Mark Twain’s cat? I don’t intend to have my life controlled by fear. A bit of Sioux wisdom can answer your question. Man fears what he does not know. Man loves what he knows best. I know you, Gifford Lennon Ulrich. I know you.”
This is a very powerful book by this gifted artist. Grady Harp, December 17

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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