To be fair, veterinarian Helen Patrice never set out to do harm. Not when she slowly slipped from college party girl into functioning alcoholic, slamming shots from mini bottles throughout the day at work at her vet hospital.
Not when she’d go out in the evenings to one of her rotating cycle of bars and get so hammered that the next day she’d barely remember the anonymous sex she’d engaged in with some stranger in the bathroom or parking lot.
And certainly not that fateful evening after one of those alcohol drenched bar hops when she was involved in a hit and run accident. No, Helen never set out to do harm. But what she did after the harm was done…
High school geometry teacher Edgar Woolrich was driving the other car involved in Helen’s accident. He and his wife, who’d announced her pregnancy earlier that evening, were on their way home after a night out celebrating the news. Unfortunately, their route home took a life-altering detour: Edgar’s through the ER, his wife and unborn child’s through the morgue.
When Helen realizes the following morning what has happened she painstakingly covers up the accident. Determined to turn over a new leaf, she joins Alcoholics Anonymous and begins earnestly working the 12 Step program. Edgar, too, is earnestly working a program. His, however, is one of his own creation. Using his skill with numbers, he spends hours creating probability charts and graphs in effort to figure out who was involved in the accident that took his wife and unborn child from him.
Their respective quests end up on course for a collision of another kind when Helen finally reaches the 9th Step: Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. And this, boys and girls, is where The Ninth Step, the third book from Atlanta author Grant Jerkins, kicks into seriously high gear.
In her misguided, twisted effort to make amends, Helen ends up working her way into Edgar’s life. In fact, they actually end up involved romantically, with Edgar none the wiser as to Helen’s involvement in the accident. Of course Jerkins being an author who loves to explore the darkest corners of people’s hearts, he gives readers that setup then mercilessly rips the scabs off the wounds both Helen and Edgar are trying so desperately to recover from in order to see how they react when their backs are pressed to the wall. He does this by injecting several wild cards into the scenario, both people and events which force Helen and Edgar to choose what “truth” matters most to them and how far they’re willing to go to protect it.
As with his previous novels, A Very Simple Crime and At the End of the Road, with The Ninth Step Jerkins once again proves himself an absolutely fearless writer who’s willing to take readers – cringing and squirming, kicking and screaming – down some very uncomfortable roads. He carefully constructs the lives of Helen and Edgar, separately, so the reader has a very clear picture of who they and what they’re made of. Then he pulls the rug out from under everyone, readers and characters alike, by slamming the two of them together and throwing into question everything you thought you knew to be true.
If you like story lines wrapped up neatly and prefer your characters to fit into tidy, easily defined boxes, well, this isn’t the book for you. Jerkins excels at creating characters who reflect the complexities of the real world. They are conflicted, flawed, and when pushed, morally flexible. They are, in short, painfully believable. Even when committing questionable, even criminal acts, it’s hard not to at least understand where the characters in Jerkins’s novels are coming from, even if you don’t actually condone their behavior. And it’s a sure sign of an author’s skill when he can lead readers deep into a moral quagmire and have them struggling right alongside the characters to decide what the proper course of action really is.
Jerkins now has three published novels under his belt, and every one of them has a completely different flavor. However, from the Southern Gothic of a massively dysfunctional family, to a coming of age story wrapped in a mystery, to a twisted love affair born of deceit, they do all have one thing in common…they are all examples of the type of stellar storytelling an author in complete control of his craft is capable of. If you’re not yet reading Grant Jerkins’s work, please do yourself a favor and start. Now.
The Ninth Step is available from Berkley (ISBN: 978-0425255988).
– The Ninth Step by Grant Jerkins –
And be sure to read Grant’s guest post, “Some Thoughts on the Ninth Step.”