“What she had seen above the bed was more than apparition, more than a visual thing. There, sitting beside her dying mother, she’d sensed another presence, a new being, energy membrane-bound, translucent and hovering, alive in the air. The sense was volatility, the struggling with a decision, a choice – most definitely a choice – more why than when, more God than science.
There, fibrillating above the bed, was a soul. It was her mother’s soul, the cry soul of her mother deliberating its only options: whether to stay or depart, this world or another. An in the instant before it abandoned its literal form, whatever her mother’s soul accepted or denied had to have been better than the body below, the face still puffy from chemotherapy, that halo of resurrected hair.”
Four characters’ stories, always linked, converge uneasily across the course of “Shirtless Men Drink Free,” a first novel by Monroe County native Dwaine Rieves. One character is Jane Beekman, a physician and biomedical company executive, the woman who watched at her dying mother’s bedside. Two others are her husband, doctor Price Beekman, and his brother Jackson, a Georgia attorney general who plans to be the state’s next governor. Outside this family triangle, inexorably pulling himself closer, is a childhood friend, Tommy Carpenter – sick, embittered, slightly crazed, and maybe in the right. At the novel’s end, the group will draw together to one room: high in a Georgia state office building, with a loaded gun, an old snapshot from the Baltimore gay scene, and an open window.
A doctor and pharmaceutical researcher, Rieves studied fiction-writing at Johns Hopkins. He has won awards for his poetry and he marshals his themes with a novelist’s skill. The idea of a mother’s soul departing may hint that the Beekmans inhabit a landscape where home no longer holds comfort. A money clip vanishes and reappears, carried across the chapters, a reminder of debts and obligations. Genetic testing suggests the indelibility of character and blood.
“Shirtless Men Drink Free” has the shape of a thriller, and it works as that. Set in 2004, it is a historical thriller, featuring tobacco lawsuits, biomedical start-ups, campaign shenanigans, family secrets, and a planned expansion of the Atlanta airport. This may be a reckless number of moving parts, but readers will remember the book for its crisp writing (the stream-of-conscious passages work particularly well) and its smart-aleck, dead-on recreation of radio talk show banter.
“Shirtless Men Drink Free,” by Dwaine Rieves. Leapfolio / Tupelo Press. 326 pages. $16.95.
Allen Boyer is the Book Editor of HottyToddy.com. A native of Oxford, he lives and writes on Staten Island.