Words to Die For by Lynn Kostoff

“You can afford to burn with a self-righteous purpose and champion Truth and Justice because you can’t admit just how terrifyingly little either of them has to do with anyone’s life, including your own.” — Raymond Locke

Raymond Locke is a fixer. His official job title at PR firm Public Domain is public relations specialist, but make no mistake about it, what Locke does is fix problems. Big, ugly, career and business torpedoing problems—the type of scandals that keep the supermarket tabloids of the world in business.

The year is 1986, and in the Reagan-era, greed is good, Iran-Contra fueled American cultural climate, Public Domain has no shortage of extremely rich clients with extremely embarrassing problems to fix before the damage sets in too deeply. Having become something of a rock star amongst fixers for his work on a case involving allegations of impropriety at a daycare center, Locke is known as the go-to guy for the dirtiest of problems.

But even Locke couldn’t have imagined just how far down the rabbit hole his newest client’s case would take him.

Lamar Ditell, owner/CEO of Happy Farms, a giant poultry company, has a Grade A scandal on his hands. Previously just a chicken producer/supplier, Happy Farms recently expanded into the fast-food business. Unfortunately for Ditell, over 100 people were stricken with serious food poisoning following the grand opening of Happy Farms’ first two franchises. And while such an outbreak would normally only be an embarrassing bump in the road, one of the victims, a ten-year-old girl, suffers serious complications and ends up in a coma. It still might be a PR hurdle someone with Locke’s skills could easily clear, until both a crusading journalist and a high-profile activist with Hollywood ties latch onto the scandal like dogs with a bone, determined to bring down Ditell and his empire, which had previously garnered bad press for an anti-union incident at Happy Farms’ processing plant.

Things take a turn for the seriously bizarre, and increasingly dangerous, when Locke meets with Ken Brackett, father of the stricken young girl. Himself an employee at the Happy Farms plant—as well as a devotee of an eccentric, reclusive Robert Bly-esque guru—Brackett appears reluctant to throw Ditell/Happy Farms under the bus by engaging legal counsel…but why? Add to the mix some high-profile and powerful political enemies of both Locke and Ditell, and for the first time in his career Locke finds himself in the very uncomfortable position of not riding the wave of spin control, but getting pulled into its undertow.

Words to Die For, the latest from the immensely talented Lynn Kostoff, is a richly layered journey through the mid ‘80s collective American psyche, as personified by Raymond Locke. Though he likes to think of himself as a good person—he loves his wife and struggles to do right by her and their autistic son—Locke has to increasingly confront and wrestle with doubts about his rapidly eroding morality.

As long as he continued to feel appalled, Raymond told himself, he’d be all right. Appalled kept him from getting lost. Appalled was good. Appalled was the line of bread crumbs he dropped in order to find his way back home.

Except, as both the Happy Farms scandal and his life start to come apart at the seams, the harder it becomes for Locke to find his way back home, his moral compass seemingly irreversibly misaligned.

Through the lens that is Locke, Kostoff explores a time in America’s history when, seemingly more than at any other, flash mattered over substance, where just the right “spin” on a story was more important than the underlying truth, or its implications, and Americans were all too happy to swallow a good narrative hook, line and sinker as long as they were riding high and feeling good along the way.

Examination of the darkest facets of character are nothing new for Kostoff, his novel Late Rain is a Southern Gothic masterpiece told from four different first person perspectives, but with Words to Die For he raises the bar to another level, presenting a masterful, multilayered narrative that examines where the tipping point of morality is from both a micro (Locke) and macro (American culture) perspective. It’s a sublimely enjoyable, (intentionally) challenging and thought-provoking read, one which has me once again wondering why the hell Lynn Kostoff isn’t a household name amongst readers.

Words to Die For is available from New Pulp Press (ISBN:978-0989932394).

Lynn Kostoff is a professor of English at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina. He has also taught at the University of Alabama, Indiana State University, and Bowling Green State University, where he received his MFA in fiction. He is the author of the novels A Choice of Nightmares, The Long Fall, Late Rain, and Words to Die For.
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