Sunday, March 16, 2008

REVIEW: Voltage by Justin Conwell


After attempting suicide, Eric had his self-destructive thoughts blasted out of his head through Electro-Convulsive Therapy. Unfortunately, the therapy also stole his memory of what drove him to suicide in the first place. Even worse, it tore away the creative part of Eric's brain, leaving the former painter without the inspiration to do much more than work as a clerk at the local discount store.

Now a year has passed, and Eric's daily routine is upended when the latest load of donations includes a box filled with ashes and labeled "Harold." Pressed into a road trip to bring Harold's remains back home, Eric finds himself forced to confront both his current life and the past that got him there.


Over a year ago, I wrote a brief review of Saints Visible by "Justin Gil." I described the novel as a "charming, folksy tale" with considerable "laid back charms," although I found the resolution to be "rather abrupt" and "too easy."

I have been told that Voltage, attributed to a "Justin Conwell," is in fact the same author's second novel. Based on the evidence of the two books, I certainly believe it. Voltage demonstrates the same strengths as Saints Visible: a clear, inviting writing style that immediately draws the reader in. Voltage, however, is a considerably greater triumph, as it marries those strengths to a much more mature and involving story.

With its themes of suicide and long-buried memories, the novel may sound exceedingly glum or melodramatic. And indeed, as one might expect, Eric's buried memories do conceal a tragic story that ultimately impact his present as much as his past. However, Voltage is not a melodrama. Rather, Voltage is a tragedy, in the most positive (if not quite Grecian) sense of that word.

Like any good tragic hero, Eric is both deeply flawed -- indeed, infuriating at times -- but also deeply, recognizably human. Conwell draws us into Eric's tale slowly; although dark rumblings can be heard from the start, the early part of the book is fairly relaxed, and even whimsical. But as the story progresses, we grow to care about Eric and his traveling companions (including romantic interests both actual and potential). When Eric's failings and history inexorably surface, there is nothing flashy or over-the-top about the results; everything in Voltage feels real, and plausible. And this quiet power makes Eric's journey all the more affecting.

Indeed, by the end of the novel Eric and his friends have all learned, in one way or another, that you cannot run away from your past. This is, of course, an ancient literary theme, dating back (at least) to the aforementioned classical Greek tragedies. Yet Voltage distinguishes itself through compelling characters that make its exploration of this well-worn trope feel fresh, powerful, and, ultimately, heartrending. Saints Visible was worthwhile as a cute "feel good" book; Voltage, by contrast, is a genuine work of art.


Voltage is available from Lulu here as either a $0.50 download or an $11.99 paperback. Saints Visible is also still available from Lulu, either as a free download or an $8.56 paperback. The author does not appear to have a website; nor am I aware of any other books he may have written, whether as Justin Gil, Justin Conwell, or some other pen-name.


The Sheds have made all four of their folksy rural rock albums available for free download, and I strongly recommend that you take them up on their generosity. Each is strong, but the most recent two -- The Sheds Quit Smoking and You've Got A Light -- are especially stunning. The Sheds sing about the small issues of day-to-day living, and, appropriately enough, their songs encompass the gentle humor, quiet yearning, and upbeat joys of everyday life, while also maintaining a consistent and intense melodiousness. These guys should not be missed.

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