Knox author Shaw debuts with The Way Life Should Be
by Sarah Scoonover
Murder, hate crimes, sexual perversions, and secrets are the source of The Way Life Should Be by Terry Shaw, winner of the Gather.com First Chapters Writing Competition. It wasnâ’t easy for the Knoxville native to publish his debut novel; over 2,600 first-time novelists entered the competition. He had already fired the manuscript off to an agent when he decided to submit.
â“On the last day before the deadline, I sent in my submission with about four hours to go,â” says Shaw. â“The competition was intense.â”
Shaw is co-winner of the contract with Simon & Schuster through their Touchstone imprint; the other winning novelist was Geoffrey S. Edwards with Fire Bell in The Night. The odds were against him, but Shaw had one advantage: a killer opening.
The novel begins with the murder of Paul Stanwood, popular politician and married family man, in a bathhouse at Sullivan Park in Stone Harbor, Maine. The catch is that Sullivan Park is a gay pick-up stop, and there have been reports of police brutality in recent raids of the area. Stanwood had recently petitioned the press about the raids, and he had been threatening to take his complaints higher to his friends in Washington. Did someone have him killed to shut him up, or do the rumors that Stanwood was there recreationally have any merit?
These are the opening questions that form the heart of the novel. It is impossible to determine whether the novel is a good inverted detective story with an editor in place of a detective, or a psychological suspense novel that utilizes complex characterization instead of successive murders to develop tension. Either way, it is an excellent mystery novel in which the reader does not immediately intuit each twist or carefully constructed turn. For every sudden physical danger that hero John Quinn, newspaper owner, encounters there are at least two psychological conflicts.
Throughout the novel, a double layer of tension evolves between everyday difficulties and the unique conflicts the murder has created. He brings life to character Quinn through a rough past with a demanding, overworked father of his own meshed with the real-life difficulties of being a business owner with a family. He increases character sympathy through these mini-conflicts, enriching the story above the norm of standard detective fiction.
This system of continuous tension moves the reader gently first one way and then another through a maze of complicated motivations. Is the small town paper The Pilot failing because of owner John Quinnâ’s obsession with his friendâ’s murder at a local gay pick-up point? Will Maria, his wife, cheat on him with self-important police chief Al Sears? What about Paul Stanwoodâ’s widowâ"will the humiliation of being married to an allegedly gay man drive her to more than drinking?
The tension of these conflicts occasionally overshadows Shawâ’s use of postmodernist techniques, which make for delicate touches in the text. He uses the occasional fragmented sentence for effect, and he makes extensive use of the newspaper article as narrative. Shawâ’s background as a reporter is only visible in these segments of form; the remainder of the novel is Shawâ’s original breed of fiction. Shaw makes effective use of the articles primarily as a means to manage multiple storylines with multiple character interactions without having to add in these smaller, less meaningful scenes.
What everyone wants to know after reading the novel is whether or not it is an autobiography masquerading as fiction. Several of the details seem a little too accurate, and the close relationship of the narrator to the subject matter appears personal. Shaw also lived in Maine before moving to Knoxville, and he spent several years as a reporter. If pressed, he will tell you the truth, â“My life has always been too dull to make a decent novel.â”
Who: Terry Shaw
When: Wednesday, Oct. 3, 7 p.m.
Where: Borders Books, 202 Morrell Road
How Much: Free
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