“When Loo was twelve years old her father taught her how to shoot a gun.”
The first line of Hanna Tinti’s thrilling new novel, “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley,” is a promise, not a tease. Her propulsive story comes fully loaded, and every round is fired in the unveiling of a plot so precise its machinations click into place like delicate clockwork. It is a narrative and organizational triumph.
“It’s one of the reasons this book took me seven years!” Tinti said in an interview conducted by phone and by email. Her debut novel, 2008’s “The Good Thief,” was so well received she felt pressure to ride the momentum and publish a follow-up as quickly as possible. She was writing every day and the pages piled up – soon she had 250 – but they just weren’t clicking. She started to despair.
FIRST DRAFT BOOK CLUB: Talk about this book at Changing Hands May 24
“There were other things that weren’t going so great in my life at the time. I was holding down a lot of jobs, but the jobs all paid very little money… I was really struggling to make my rent every month,” Tinti said. Then, the stresses radically mounted: a few members of her family were diagnosed with cancer around the same time, she went through a bad breakup and her car was totaled in an accident. “I got so pushed to the wall,” she said. It was only then that throwing away 250 pages and starting fresh didn’t seem like too great a loss. And that’s when Hawley crept in.
The book’s conceit is a delicious one, ready-made for a rollicking TV serial. Hawley and daughter Loo are an itinerant pair with few belongings: a truck, a stash of guns, a shrine made of Loo’s dead mother’s own meager possessions (a tube of lipstick, a receipt, a photo-booth picture strip). How her mother died remains as much a mystery to Loo as her father’s wrecked body, which is ravaged with scars. Not just scars — bullet holes.
“I think that our physical bodies are like a kind of map of our lives,” Tinti said. “What if I tried to tell someone’s entire life story just based on the marks on their body?”
So Tinti does, teasing out the story of Hawley’s past through bullet wounds in alternating chapters (with titles like “Bullet Number One,” “Bullet Number Two,” etc.). Each bullet chapter acts as a self-contained thriller made all the more suspenseful by the inevitability of a gun blast, taking the reader on a chronological tour of Hawley’s criminal past.
Meanwhile, in the present, Hawley and Loo make an attempt at normalcy, setting down roots for the first time. Their homestead is to be Olympus, Mass., the rural seaside town where Loo’s mother was born. They do their best to assimilate – no easy task when you know more about firearm maintenance than socializing. “The world is a rotten place,” Hawley tells Loo, “and you’ve got to find a way to be rotten if you’re going to live in it.” Not exactly classic daddy-daughter advice.
But they try. They clumsily inch closer to normal, but the past is fast on their heels. Those mini-thrillers are leading up to something, a cataclysmic collision of past and present that will irreparably change Loo and Hawley’s lives.
The writing is luminous and large, and Tinti swings for the metaphorical fences: linking Hawley’s bullet wounds to the twelve labors of Hercules, waxing poetic about the cosmos, incorporating not one, but two whales at key dramatic junctures. It’s an unthinkable writerly indulgence, invoking Herman Melville like that. Except Tinti makes it work.
“We’re going about our day-to-day, paying bills, worrying about getting to work on time, and then – BAM!” Tinti says of those soul-shaking moments, when the universe lets us know how small we are. “And suddenly you feel your place in the universe, feel yourself moving through time and space, and sense, at the edge of your fingertips, some great understanding of what it means to be alive – and then the moment fades and passes, and you go back to paying your bills.”
It’s a poet’s aspiration, to distill the world into a pinpoint and awaken the spirit with a start. And so she shakes the reader awake alongside her characters at the majesty of the universe in this magic trick of a book, where the pages can’t turn fast enough and the heart can’t linger long enough.
Reach the reporter at [email protected] or 602-444-8371. Twitter.com/BabsVan.
First Draft Book Club
What: A community conversation about “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley” led by Republic reporter Barbara VanDenburgh.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 24.
Where: Changing Hands Phoenix, 300 W. Camelback Road.
Admission: Free; 20 percent discount on copies of “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley” purchased at any Changing Hands location through May 24. On night of the event, enjoy all-night happy-hour prices.
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