'Fallout' falls short in the drama department

Lowcountry book reviewerSeptember 16, 2012 

  • By Mark Ethridge. New-South Books. 267 pages, $19.95.

The action of this timely novel revolves around four groups of people in the small town of Winston, W.Va. Their stories seem separate yet will come together with considerable impact. We first meet police chief J.P. Holt who, while bottom-fishing for catfish in the Ohio River, pulls up a decomposed body. He cuts it loose and does not report his grisly find.

Next comes Josh Gibbs, editor and publisher of The Winston News, who has just lost his wife to cancer and fears the same thing will happen to his teenage daughter, Katie. His daughter's cancer is discovered by the town doctor, an attractive young blonde who has inherited the practice from her father. Her name is Allison Wright, and she was the best friend of Josh's late wife. She is also estranged from her brutal husband and carrying a secret torch for Josh. Dr. Wright has not only detected a questionable spot on Katie Gibbs' leg, but has uncovered a series of mysterious infections that she suspects of being a flesh-eating virus.

Finally, we meet Congressman Harry Dorn, an ambitious conservative with loose scruples, who is running for the Senate and imagines himself in the White House. He is in firm opposition to environmental "tree huggers" and has powerful support from local business interests.

The characters would seem to be in place for a well-meaning if somewhat predictable tale of the never-ending battle between the forces of greed and the search for truth and justice.

I expected something more from the author of "Grievances," a novel I enjoyed and that Pat Conroy compared to a John Grisham legal thriller. But "Fallout" is less successful and, in the end, something of a disappointment.

Getting back to our cast, we find that Chief Holt is a heavy gambler who owes $28,000 and has to moonlight at a local company to pay his bills. The company is the area's biggest employer but not above unethical practices that would horrify the EPA. Neither he nor Congressman Dorn can be expected to do much about that.

Then, in the diseased samples Wright has sent out for testing, she does find one case of a viral infection, but is shocked to discover that several of her patients are suffering from radioactive poisoning.

Where, in this small mountain town, could it have come from? She and Josh team up to discover the source, and their attraction begins to grow, despite his growing concern about his daughter. Amputation of her cancerous leg is covered by insurance; treatment by chemotherapy that could avoid surgery may cost as much as $100,000 -- money Josh cannot raise.

Complications arise out of the increasingly common use of body jewelry and the infections it can cause. More is learned about what the local industry is doing to pollute the area's air and water. Dr. Wright's ex-husband starts causing trouble, and the congressman shows that in addition to his other vices, he has a weakness for teenage prostitutes. Who could imagine such doings went on in rural West Virginia?

The author does a fairly good job of establishing his characters and setting his scene, but then you get the feeling that he was told he'd better finish it soon, or else. Everything begins to happen too quickly, loose ends are tied up without the drama we have been led to expect, and it ends in a kind of hurried mess. Truth and justice win out again, but without the dramatic conflicts that he simply did not write.

Ethridge is an ex-newsman who knows the newspaper world, and while this gave credibility and atmosphere to "Grievances," it's buried here under pages and pages filled with technical details of the search for radioactivity. "Fallout's" heart is in the right place, but that's never enough to carry a novel by itself.

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