In Dire Salvation Charles B. Neff uses straightforward, punchy language to unroll a suspenseful yarn of drugs, mental illness, and revenge in central Washington state. In it, he succeeds in gaining our sympathies for his characters, and helps us see, and root for, every shape that salvation may take for them. It’s a genuine pleasure to read this direct, businesslike book, not only because of the economy of language, but also because of a balancing richness of theme and image.
In small-town rural Washington, a drug mule is murdered, and weak-witted, defenseless Lonny Ogden is held for it. A number of inconsistencies undermine his status as a suspect, and when a second member of the drug underground is killed with Lonny still in custody, focus necessarily shifts in another direction. Lonny and his big sister Calla, who is the story’s fretful protagonist, are part Native American. The inconsistencies and conflicts between the Native and Anglo cultures show, somewhat under the surface, but don’t really break out into the open here except as an alternate approach to the moral principles involved. The other characters, town mayor Phil Bianchi, immigrant policeman Greg Takarchuk, and reformed drug dealer Jason Ferris, all struggle to pick their way through treacherous waters to promising new lives. These subplots provide the gratifying depth that this novel rewards the reader with.
Mr. Neff makes highly effective use of native stories and legends, wielding them to fill the depths of his characters, and make genuine their motivation. They provide a backdrop to current nefarious or virtuous activity, and knowing them gives a character a key to solving the main riddle, and to getting Lonny off the hook. This book is paced brilliantly – characters’ self-examination, when it happens, happens with the same economy as the main action. It’s all handled very deftly indeed. The suspenseful principal story serves as entrée and engine for the personal quests of its main characters. It’s a pleasing, impressive whole, and features an action-packed, perilous climax that is highly satisfying.
On the whole, a highly recommended read.