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Booklist Review of Miracle Girl

When an apparent miracle rocks economically depressed Hudson City, New York, John Quinn–whose work for the Roman Catholic diocese has shifted from the space management he loves to property sales–is initially involved just in finding space for the pilgrims pouring into town. They come to see the miracle girl, 30-year-old Sue Phong, the deaf orphaned daughter of a Vietnamese woman and African American soldier, who appeared in the dream of a deaf man whose hearing was suddenly restored. As reports of cures increase, Quinn’s life comes crashing down around him; he’s betrayed both by his real estate broker buddy (who’s reporting Quinn to the IRS) and by the woman he loves (who’s carrying on an e-mail relationship with another man). Finally, Quinn’s own capacity for betrayal is tested by the miracle girl herself. Scribner has created wonderfully human characters with whom he explores the issues of faith, trust, and possibility with exceptional skill and sensitivity. A departure from his debut novel, The GoodLife (1999), this should be just as warmly received.

—Booklist, Michele Leber

Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

“Father and son, co-authors in a shared life”

Its challenges can seem limitless, yet, its joys can stretch to heaven

By Keith Scribner

Special To The Sun

Originally published June 14, 2003

One afternoon 15 years ago, I hiked from the Himalayan village of Old Manali, India, higher up into the mountains. I sat on an outcropped rock looking over the expansive valley spotted with villages and rippling with terraced fields. Never in my life had I talked to myself for hours as I did that day, and though I was self-conscious of the moment’s staginess, I had to talk through the decision that I’d climbed the mountain to make. By the end of the afternoon, when long lines of women, children and goats walked the footpaths from the fields to the village, I’d decided to commit at least the next 10 years of my life to writing fiction. I rushed down the path to the guesthouse, took out a notebook and pencil, and plunged in.

Grace Paley advises that writers surround themselves with people who believe in their work, and that they keep overhead low, so I lived in cheap apartments and drove a rusted-out Datsun to share dinner with friends who took my writing seriously. As I tried to stay above water – working as a carpenter and teacher and buying myself time off – their faith buoyed me. I avoided the friends who could be counted on for the same jokes about my haphazard employment, about sitting around the apartment all day. (“Can you catch me up on the soaps?”)

Before I’d see my first novel in a bookstore, I met the woman I’d marry. I blurted my proposal one night, months before I’d planned to. Together, we took the next plunge. Jen is a poet, and through the years, we’ve composed and revised a dozen times the rhythm, layers and story of our relationship, balancing our commitments to writing and each other. We are each other’s lover, friend, audience, critic and muse. We believe in each other’s work. We’ve kept overhead low.

Nearly four years ago, we introduced a new current into our story: our son Luke. He was a prince among babies, born with a full head of blazing red hair, a ravenous appetite, a mesmeric addiction to Aretha Franklin and hot baths. For years, I’d worked at the relationship between husband and writer, and now I had a new relationship to craft: the one between writing and fatherhood.

Taking the plunge

A few nights before Luke’s birth, Jen asked me what I thought she should pack to wear home from the hospital. We decided on her green and white airy linen dress. That night I had a dream in which Jen and I were walking from a lakeshore out onto a pier. I flipped some food into the lake for the hungry fish, and as we leaned over the edge to watch them eat, the pier suddenly collapsed. We plunged into the water, holding tight to each other. She was wearing the green and white dress.

Three nights later, we plunged in with Luke for real. In much the same way, 15 years ago, I started writing. This is how you do it – hold on tight to what you love, and hope you don’t drown.

Both novel writing and fatherhood can keep me in a bathrobe all day, inside, unshowered. They are both exhausting. Until Luke was born, writing was the most complicated and difficult thing I knew.

As a teacher of fiction writing, I tell my students to raise the stakes for their characters. If there’s not a marriage on the rocks, a promotion on the line, a sick child to sit by in the hospital, a reader is less likely to care. As Luke has entered our narrative, the stakes have shot up wildly.

I refer my students to Flannery O’Connor, who tells us: “The fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal through the senses with abstractions.” Early mornings, barely light, Luke was a fresh reminder to me of the power of smell, the immediacy of hunger, the discomfort of cold feet. Writers ask themselves, “What do my characters want?” So I asked, “What does Luke want?” He wanted the taste of his mother’s milk on his tongue, the sated bloat in his stomach. He wanted a familiar-smelling body to lie on, his back patted before drifting off to sleep in his battery-operated buzzing chair, staring at his mobile of bumble bees wearing capes and goggles, listening to it ding out “Feelin’ Groovy.” This boy did not deal in abstractions.

When Luke was a few weeks old, Jen and I tried to stage “First bath with daddy.” Jen lit candles in the bathroom, set up the camera, and filled the tub. Everything was set for the pastel scene we’d imagined for months. I got in and Jen passed Luke into my arms. But we had committed countless screamable offenses, and five minutes later, dizzy from his cries echoing off the tile, we bailed out as any writer knows you often must. Years of imagining and note taking, hundreds of pages written and revised, and the result is a helpless fuming baby that won’t play along.

Balancing life, writing

The writing life is an examined life. Writing well, and, I began to see, fathering well, too, produced the same self-scrutiny. Being a writer and a father both challenged my assumptions and the values by which I lived, made me feel uneasy about my own limitations. And in these ways, they fed each other. After reading a batch of student stories in which no one was redeemed – evil characters remain evil, and the world be damned – I complained to a writer friend that there seemed no point in creating a fiction in which none of the characters finds redemption. Life is too full, I said, there are too many walks in the sun to leave all your characters slogging through the mud. That, my friend said, sounds like a new father talking.

I couldn’t imagine life without writing. I could no longer imagine writing without Luke. The part of me that writes as well as I can is bigger, really, a better person than the part of me who goes to dinner parties and argues politics. The writer in me is more generous and forgiving than the me into whom I’ve poured a couple glasses of Cabernet at a cocktail party. The writer in me sees the good in those I resent, understands the faults and limitations in those I love.

And what about the me who I took to the side of my son’s crib at 3 in the morning? At those times, I had to be bigger still. If it took generosity of spirit to create good fiction, what did it take to create a boy? I learned to write by studying the lyricism of Stuart Dybek, the surprising characters of Alice Munro and Tobias Wolff, the crackling dialogue of Don DeLillo. But those things are craft, the elements that can be learned. The essential part comes from the gut. I watched my wife, a natural mother in every way. Jen has the long arms of a soul that can reach out to gather all that is good and serve it up in her poems, feed it to our son; hands that can shake off the limitations of ego, cynicism, jealousy and fear. And since the same must be done for the good of the fiction – since settling old scores and dreams of the best seller list will seep in and sully the process of writing well -I’ve hoped that as Luke grows, I’d grow too, and as I discovered the selfless generosity that would let me be a better father, that same spirit would make me a better writer, from which I’d grow stronger as a father, and back and forth.

The art of life

When I was in junior high, I hiked with some friends up a long easy trail to the top of a cliff. Hundreds of feet below we could see the roofs of tiny houses, a riding mower cutting an impossibly small line across a yard. The cliff was sheer down the face, but around the sides it was merely dangerously steep, so one of us suggested climbing down. Ten minutes into our descent it was clear that this was a bad idea. Shale slid out from under our sneakers, we held on to the tiny green branches of saplings. One of us slid 20 or 30 feet before he grabbed a tree. His leg and the palms of his hands were streaked with blood.

When we finally made it to the bottom and cut through a yard, a man stopped us. He didn’t chew us out or chase us off his property. He was relieved, nearly pleading we never try that again. “Kids have fallen from there,” he said. “They fall and land in my back yard.”

In the first months of Luke’s life, I often flashed on this memory, my heart thumping, panicked. How would I protect my son from the bad judgment he was inheriting from me?

The answer is that I won’t. Luke is not a character in my fiction whose life I can absolutely control. He will bushwhack, take risks for the sake of the risk, descend treacherous cliffs. Just as I can unleash the worst of myself at those cocktail parties, Luke, in another few years, when he’s not chosen first to club the pinata, might sink his fist into the birthday cake. As I grow as a father, I hope I can steer Luke toward the loving, sensible, creative, generous, whimsical; and away from the foolish, selfish, rigid, limited, spiteful. I hope that fatherhood will summon up the best of me.

And now we’re writing our daughter Chloe into the narrative of our lives. A beauty, like her brother, she was born with fiery red hair. She’s already 2, no longer a baby, but this morning when I came downstairs from my office, Jen was reading a book to her on the couch, and I remembered another morning when Luke was only a few months old: I’d taken a break from my writing to come down and make another cup of coffee, and I found Jen lying back on the couch, mid-morning, the sun filling our apartment. She was asleep, her blouse open. Luke’s face rested peacefully on her chest, rising and falling with her breath, his arms reaching around the sides of her neck. He had just finished nursing, his lips still creamy and fluted to the shape of Jen’s breast.

I was reminded that as writers we always wonder if our work is good enough, if it rises to the level of art. It can be hard to know. Thomas Aquinas wrote that “beauty” in art requires three things: “wholeness, harmony and radiance.” On that bright morning, when I saw my wife and son lying together, I knew.

Keith Scribner teaches fiction writing and literature in the master’s of fine arts program at Oregon State University. His second novel, Miracle Girl, will be published in August.

From the National Kidney Foundation Authors Luncheon Program

October 1999 in San Francisco
November 1999 in Sacramento

The GoodLife, Keith Scribner’s first novel, was published this fall. The story takes as its central incident the 1992 abduction of an Exxon executive in Morristown, New Jersey. The shocking events of a kidnapping are told from several points of view over the course of five days. The GoodLife is a story of our times, a literary portrait of America’s pursuit of the good life gone awry, presenting the most extreme of our realities–self-deception, greed, faith, and regret. It is also about class in this country and conflicting interpretations of the American Dream.

“I wrote a lot of The GoodLife while living in Turkey,” Scribner says. “As I look back over the novel now, some of the scenes that get closest to the American sensibility are the ones I wrote there. It must be because of the perspective I gained living in a place so foreign. With similar ends in mind, I’ve given an equal voice to each of the five main characters in The GoodLife, hoping each offers perspective on the others.” Indeed, the characters implicitly comment on one another, and as a whole they serve as a panoramic picture of American passions, ideals, ambitions, and failures.

“When I started writing the novel,” Scribner continues, “I realized a single narrator couldn’t tell this story. The dreams and justifications of the kidnappers were as interesting to me as the story of the man they abducted.” The novel also portrays the kidnapper’s father, a seventy-five-year-old man who knows nothing of the abduction, and the victim’s wife, struggling to maintain her hope and faith as she waits for her husband’s return.

Scribner was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, and he currently teaches fiction in Stanford’s Creative Writing Program. He has worked as a carpenter, mucked oil tankers in the Gulf of Mexico, driven a taxi in Boston, and taught in Japan, Turkey, and New Jersey. His short stories have appeared in American Short Fiction and North Atlantic Review. He is working now on his second novel.

Farm scribe enjoys “GoodLife”

by Sarah Heim for The Stanford Daily

Keith Scribner’s new novel, The GoodLife, isn’t an autobiography. But with a title like that, it could be.

When Scribner arrived at Stanford University in 1994, he had written only a few chapters of his book. However, when he leaves Stanford this spring, he won’t be just packing up a copy of his first published novel. He’ll also be taking along a new and inspiring chapter in his own life.

Originally from the Northeast, Scribner graduated from Vassar College in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in economics.

After teaching English in Japan for a year, he returned to the United States and worked in Boston as a carpenter, a job that he would return to often in years to come.

“If you’re getting writing done in your life, there’s no need to get a Masters of Fine Arts, but I wasn’t,” Scribner said about his post-college experience.

“As an economics major, I hadn’t taken any fiction writing classes in college. I knew there had to be some secrets out there that someone else could teach me.”

With that in mind, he applied to and was accepted at the University of Montana. Graduating in 1991 with an MFA in creative writing, he again taught abroad, this time in Turkey.

He traveled extensively in the Middle East before returning to Boston, where he worked as a Checker Cab driver.

But Scribner’s heart wasn’t in carpentry or cab driving. He was a writer.

Following his passion, he applied for the Stanford Creative Writing Program’s Stegner Fellowship in 1994 and received one of five two-year fellowships in fiction that are awarded annually.

Scribner already knew he wanted to write when he arrived at Stanford.

What he didn’t know was that he would also become a husband, a father, and an acclaimed teacher and writer before his chapter at the University came to an end.

“I met Jen [Richter] playing poker with some Stegners one of my first nights in town,” Scribner said, holding up a snapshot of himself with his wife and their two-month old son, Luke.

“Scribner and Richter, a former Stegner Fellow in poetry, married in 1998. At the end of their fellowships, they were both appointed Jones Lecturers, an honor awarded to a select number of departing Fellows each year.

Although their three-year teaching appointments will end this spring, Scribner remains optimistic about their teaching possibilities for the next year.

“We’d like to get a joint teaching position somewhere. We hope that applying as a team works to our advantage,” he said.

Senior Vanessa Fleming, one of Scribner’s former students, said she thinks Scribner and Richter make a great team.

“When I met [Scribner] my freshman year, I still wasn’t comfortable at Stanford. He introduced me to [Richter]. They were great role models for me. They showed me what it was like to be young and creative and in love,” she said.

While Scribner said he will be sad to lose the view from his shared office in the English department, it is not only the campus he’ll miss. It’s the students too.

“I have no complaints about the students. They are sophisticated readers of published literature and critical thinkers,” Scribner said.

With a nostalgic smile, he added, “I’m inspired by them. They are a reminder to me that if you just start typing, it is that much better than not writing at all.”

And he is a reminder to them that not all writers follow the same path to success.

“A lot of us came into [Scribner’s fiction] class feeling like we had to be great writers at age 20, but he made me realize you have to have a life to have something to write about,” Fleming said. “My roommates get mad at me because I always say [Scribner] had a real life before coming to Stanford.”

Students say his “real-life” experience makes it easy for them to feel comfortable in his class.

“He’s a down-to-earth and dedicated teacher,” said senior Jenny Leidner. “He inspires me.”

Scribner’s colleagues in the English department confirm the accolades of his students.

“They love him,” said Jones Lecturer Ryan Harty. “His students are energized. He’s gotten them excited about fiction and writing.”

English professor and author Tobias Wolff agrees. “[Scribner] has a wonderful reputation as a teacher,” he said.

“I really liked The GoodLife. It’s an extraordinary book,” Wolff said. “It’s a difficult and daring novel that keeps surprising you.”

Chances are good that there will be some surprises in the next chapter of Scribner’s life, too.

“I see big things for him in the future,” Harty said. “I believe he’ll be one of the important writers of our generation.”

IN PERSON; A Tale and the Man Who Had to Tell It

January 23, 2000, Sunday
New Jersey Weekly Desk


KEITH SCRIBNER had just finished a master’s degree in creative writing at the University of Montana in Missoula eight years ago and was living about 25 miles out of town in a log cabin at the end of a dirt road. It was there, as he listened to a radio broadcast, that faraway reality intruded: the saga of Arthur and Irene Seale and the man they had kidnapped, an Exxon official in New Jersey named Sidney J. Reso.

For Mr. Scribner, now 38 and a lecturer in the writing program at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., the intrusion became a writer’s obsession. The result is his first published novel, ”The GoodLife” (Riverhead Books), which came out this month, to favorable reviews.

It is a thoughtful caper-thriller of a crime gone wrong. But the outcome has been known for years. The real mystery is one of human understanding: what was it like to live through hell, who would create such a hell and why?

The initial mystery, of the Seales’ motivation and of Mr. Reso’s fate, persisted through May and June of 1992. The captive’s wife, Patricia, issued televised pleas for his return. The authorities said they had no leads. Then suddenly it was over.

After what the United States attorney called ”a merry chase through the night,” the F.B.I. seized the Seales in Hackettstown. They turned out to be ordinary people — not the eco-terrorists they had claimed to be. Both were 45 years old and jobless, the parents of two teen-agers. They had crushing debt and few prospects except the corrupted optimism — or desperation — that had led them to demand $18.5 million for Mr. Reso’s safe return. The ransom was never paid. Mr. Reso was found dead.

The Seales, for a brief time, had become two of the most wanted criminals in the country. Now, through Mr. Scribner’s imagination, they have been reincarnated as Theo and Colleen Wolkoviak, two feckless strivers, not so different from many others, perhaps. Except that they committed an unspeakable crime in a very public way.

”How could these people, who seemed to me so basically normal, middle-class American people do this? To feel this was their only choice.” Mr. Scribner said. ”When I first heard about it I thought, ‘How interesting. It’s a corporate executive who’s been kidnapped’ — a lot like what goes on in, I don’t know, Brazil. It didn’t happen so much in this country. Right away I thought of the social implications. Does this indicate something about class unrest?”

It was more complicated than that, of course, and in time it would become, in Mr. Scribner’s hands, a story with the trappings of classic tragedy: how the Wolkoviaks’s tortured dreams of the good life — their tragic flaw — had destroyed the lives of another couple.

Mr. Scribner stayed close to the basic plot of the real case, but compressed time, zeroing in on the implications of both couples’ pursuit of the American dream, which the Wolkoviaks believed their captive had achieved.

At the time of his disappearance, Sidney Reso, 57, was president of Exxon International, directing the oil company’s operations outside North America. He and his wife lived in an expensive housing development in Morris Township. In the book, the couple are named Stona and Nunny Brown.

Arthur Seale had been a police officer in Hillside, where his father had once served as deputy chief. He possessed a departmental record clouded by misconduct and left the force in 1977 with a disability pension after being hit by another officer’s car. Later, he became a security officer at Exxon — in Florham Park, where Mr. Reso worked — earning about $60,000 a year. He and his wife had a son in college and a daughter in high school. But the Seales, both blond and fit, wanted more. They left New Jersey in 1986, living far beyond their means in the resort towns of Vail, Colo., and Hilton Head, S.C. Their ski-and-sail businesses failed. They returned to New Jersey to live with Mr. Seale’s retired parents in Hunterdon County.

The Seales abducted Mr. Reso from his driveway in Morris Township on an ordinary Wednesday morning, April 29, as he was about to start the short drive to work. They shoved him into a crudely built coffin-like box in the back of a rented van and drove to a storage locker, where they held him for five days. Meanwhile, they tried to project the image of a normal home life while negotiating for ransom with Exxon.

Mr. Reso, who had suffered a gunshot wound in one arm during the abduction, remained bound and gagged with duct tape, lying in his own waste in 100-degree heat in the storage locker. During periodic visits, Mrs. Seale would dress the wound and give him water. When he died, five days after his abduction, the Seales buried his body in the Pine Barrens in South Jersey.

When the Seales were finally arrested, still angling for their windfall, Mr. Reso had been dead for seven weeks.

For Mr. Scribner, the tale proved hypnotic, but would not work as a standard narrative. ”I wanted to be able to explore the dreams and justifications and passions and ambitions of these people from inside their own heads,” Mr. Scribner said. ”The only way to do that was five points of view. There was no way, with a single narrator.”

Mr. Scribner’s account takes place over just three days, during which time he lets the reader see and hear the Browns, the Wolkoviaks and Theo’s father, Malcolm, who loves his son but is locked in a lifelong battle to understand the younger man’s impetuousness, his penchant for failure.

Mr. Scribner writes cinematically, with scenes alternating among the hapless but curiously sympathetic Wolkoviaks, Nunny Brown’s hopeless vigil and Stona Brown’s cruel captivity.

”Another thing, as it evolved, was the pronounced suffering of Reso in that box,” Mr. Scribner said. ”Is it possible to imagine that? It was a chance for me to reveal that particular man’s experience of being locked in this box and dying and also what his response would be, which mainly is this guilt about his past and his wish for redemption. You know we talk about character changing, or just revealing character. It gave me an opportunity to do both.”

The Seales’s transgressions are obvious, those of Stona Brown less so, initially. And here, Mr. Scribner, who, like Stona Brown, grew up Roman Catholic, decided to make Mr. Brown’s final days a dual struggle — the struggle to stay alive and the struggle to atone for both corporate sin and those of a more personal nature.

At first, Mr. Scribner had envisioned the Reso case as part of a longer novel; ultimately it became the novel itself. Although to anyone who followed the case closely, it appears that Mr. Scribner could be simply fleshing out details, his account came solely from his imagination.

”The original title for this was ‘American Ethic’,” Mr. Scribner said. ”It was a line right out of Arthur Seale’s mouth.” The full quote, made in a jailhouse interview with Barbara Walters, was: ”My whole life I’ve been a hard-working, moral, decent individual. And we really epitomized the American ethic.”

But ”The GoodLife” won out, being as it is a bit of wordplay on the Wolkoviaks’s aspirations. In the universe Mr. Scribner has constructed, Colleen dreams of becoming the enormously well-compensated captain of a highly motivated sales squad for GoodLife products, a home-sales program.

The idea, he said, came from a man he met in Turkey, where he lived for a time.

”This Turkish guy that I knew was trying to get me to sell Amway,” Mr. Scribner said. ”And as soon as he made his presentation to me — he was just so loaded with this stuff that I’d been making up about Colleen, all of the aphorisms, that business self-help speak — this just fell into my lap.”

Mr. Scribner, who graduated from Vassar College in 1984, grew up in Troy, N.Y. He majored in economics, intent on a business career — ”it was the ’80’s, I was ready to jump on.” But a writing course in his senior year turned his head.

He went to Japan to teach English, came back and worked as a carpenter and as a teacher, but continued to write. He even taught, briefly, in New Jersey, at Saddle River Day School. At Stanford, he met his wife, a poet, Jennifer Richter. They have a 5-month-old son, Luke.

So far, he said, his plan to skip the business world has worked out.

”O.K.,” Mr. Scribner said he told himself. ”I’m going to give this 10 years. And basically, that’s how long it took.”

The New York Times Dec. 1, 1992

MORRISTON, N.J., Nov. 30 — In appearances before Federal and state judges today, Arthur D. Seale was sentenced to life in prison for the kidnapping, extortion and murder of Sidney J. Reso, a senior Exxon official.

”What you have done is thoroughly evil,” said Judge Garret E. Brown Jr. of United States District Court in Trenton. ”Your actions were not for any cause. They were not rash or impulsive. They were cold-blooded and calculated. To the extent you seek mercy you will be given the same you gave your innocent victim — none.”

Then, totaling the seven conspiracy and extortion counts in the indictment, Judge Brown imposed the maximum sentence, requested by the United States Attorney, Michael Chertoff: 95 years with no parole and a fine of $1.75 million.

”You will spend the rest of your life in custody,” Judge Brown told Mr. Seale, who pleaded guilty to both sets of charges in September, after his wife, Irene, confessed to their roles and led investigators to Mr. Reso’s body. Referring in part to the Seales’ treatment of Mr. Reso, Judge Brown added, ”You will be fed, medical treatment will be provided, but you will not be bound, gagged, shot or placed in a coffin.”

Moments before Judge Brown passed sentence, Mr. Reso’s son, Christopher, was permitted to address the court. Speaking of the family’s anguish, he said: ”When Arthur and Irene Seale were arrested and the answers finally came, they seemed more cruel and perverted than even our tormented dreams could conjure.

”After all,” he said, ”these are people with their own family. Couldn’t they realize the depth of the wound that this would inflict on our family? Shouldn’t they have known in the core of their beings that what they contemplated was a violation of all that family and decency stood for?”

”The GoodLife”

”Isn’t it unique to think we could make loads of money for the reason being that we’re better people?” In Vail, in their living room, Colleen had arrayed before Theo the products she’d bought at the GoodLife informational meeting that afternoon at the Sheraton in Denver. ”But this is the Goodlife philosophy.”

Theo examined the hefty bottle of car wash, the glossy picture on the label and the bright red cap, weighing it in his hand. ”What makes you think this stuff’s any good?”

”They’re excellent products. Everyone knows that. But the point being most of your money comes from the plan, from the system you set up below you, and not from your own sales.” On the coffee table — made from a huge old blacksmith’s bellows they’d found antiquing down toward Durango — she’s placed the various products: the car wash and wax, complexion soap made from honey (a quarter the price of department stores), dish detergent, metal polish, toothpaste, mouthwash, and the classic GoodLife product, LiquidGold, the all-purpose cleanser that had made millions.

”Twenty wide and twenty deep is my initial plan. I comes out to four hundred people below me at a maximum take of twenty-one percent. Plus bonuses. Think about it. I’ve started the calculations, it’s very complex. Let’s just say, for a ballpark figure, easily six digits within twelve months.”

Theo smirked, looking to the side the way he did. Ready to suck the wind out of her sails. To shoot her down. But she wouldn’t let him, not this time. She understood that her new income might emasculate him. The freedom it would afford her. The entree into certain social circles. She would be patient with her husband. ”GoodLife is about understanding your goals,” she said. ”then setting out to fulfill them. It’s about helping you get in touch with your own desires, what’s inside you. Otherwise, you spend your life striving for some dream that might not even be your own. Do I want to achieve Distinction Status in six months, or do I want to take more time building a wider front line so I reach Laurel a little farther down the road, but I roll through Prestige and Majesty Status like a tank? I honestly don’t know. So part of the system is that through my upline and my sponsor, I’ll get to know myself better as part of the business-building process. In that sense, it’s very gestalt.”

Montanan Review of The GoodLife

by Susanna Sonnenberg

The Goodlife by Keith Scribner

Theo Wolkoviak is a small-time hothead, an ex-cop dismissed for violence whose grandiose fantasies never carry him further than a certain kind of car, a certain kind of condo. In the midst of a kidnapping that’s ill-fated from the beginning, he imagines the movie to be made of his crime. He sees it with “Tom Selleck or maybe Jim Rockford playing Theo.” Even his illusions add up to reruns.

Keith ScribnerHe is one of the central characters in Keith Scribner’s taut first book, The GoodLife, a novel based on the 1992 New Jersey kidnapping of an Exxon executive. Effortlessly shifting his psychological focus amongst five people, Scribner details a saga that is dramatically awful for each in a completely separate way. The writer imagines with intimate compassion the anxieties and bruised dreams that motivate each character, and he achieves a luminous clarity.

Theo is aided by his deflated wife Colleen, “whose perfume smelled like running into CVS for a birthday card or a bottle of aspirin,” a woman who achieved her only moment of self-esteem long ago at a GoodLife convention (modeled on Amway). Bankrupt, they have moved with their anorexic daughter into Theo’s parents’ home, where his cop father, Malcolm, is quietly dying, longing to connect just once with his disappointment of a son. Meanwhile, kidnapped and stifling in a storage locker, a corporate executive named Stona Brown retraces the signifying moments of his life and tries to measure how long he’s been gagged by the beeps of his watch. His wife fusses in her wealthy home, comforted by the police and FBI. Each one of these people comes to life in vivid, desperate strokes, none more desperate than Theo, the sort of spectacular arrogant failure Eric Roberts is so good at playing in the real movies.

Scribner gives rich texture to the exorbitant fantasies Theo and Colleen live out as they execute the kidnapping. They are so distracted by the powerful longing for all that life has denied them they can barely focus on the people or crises that confront them. Toward the end Colleen catches a glimpse of regal, rich Mrs. Brown, the woman she foolishly imagined she might become, and Scribner looks into her heart: “She wanted to ask Mrs. Brown why life is not what it’s promised to be, why we’re told to dream when our dreams have no chance of coming true.” The novel, acid and observant about an indigenous sort of materialism, carries Theo and Colleen further and further from any chance of success until it produces a stunning wreckage.

The Library Journal Review of The GoodLife

This is a riveting, psychologically sophisticated first novel, based on the actual kidnapping of an Exxon executive in 1992, by an improbable pair of criminals–a middle-aged, suburban husband and wife who had fallen deeply into debt. The kidnappers, Theo and Colleen Wolkoviak, are skillfully drawn, and they bungle their way to disaster through a mixture of bad judgment, monstrous self-absorption, and a thoroughly misplaced sense of entitlement. Theo is blustery, given to self-aggrandizement, and thoroughly unlikable. Colleen is a willing participant in the crime, but she grows increasingly anxious as complications arise. The story is told from several different points of view, which heightens the tension of the story considerably as we move from Theo, to Colleen, to their victim, who struggles mightily in his captivity with doubts about the women he has loved, the life he has led, and the choices he has made.

Recommended for all public libraries.–Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community-Technical Coll., CT Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

Barnes and Noble Review of The GoodLife

by Kelle Ruden for the Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” Series

Keith Scribner’s riveting first novel is loosely based on the true story of a suburban couple who kidnapped an Exxon executive and held him prisoner in exchange for a hefty ransom. In this imagined version, the couple’s motives and the crime’s startling outcome become a vivid commentary on the moral and social burdens of living in America at the eve of the 21st century.

For Theo and Colleen, the good life is always just out of reach. They deserved more. They worked and got nowhere. Their kids deserved more-an education, cars, travel, and parties. At a time in their lives when their struggles should be behind them, Theo is unemployed and they find themselves living off the charity of Theo’s elderly parents, crammed into his boyhood home with their teen-aged children and no privacy. Desperation is the mother of invention, however, and Theo, who has spent a lifetime looking for an easy answer, devises a plan that he is certain will end his family’s money worries for good.

As an ex-cop, Theo had worked security for a large oil company. It was there that his plan had begun to evolve. Stona Brown was an important man, an executive at Petrochem where executives could easily command 20 to 30 million dollars in ransom. He also had a regular schedule, leaving his home every day at precisely the same time for the drive to his city office. Theo had it all figured out: kidnap Brown, collect a hefty ransom, and disappear to live the life he always dreamed of-and no one would get hurt. With Colleen as his accomplice, Theo sets the wheels in motion for his well-laid plan. Unfortunately, disaster stalks his every move: a handgun meant only for show misfires and wounds Brown. As a hysterical Colleen and an angry Theo drive the abducted Brown to their pre-chosen hiding place, all hopes for an easy getaway quickly fade.

In taut, absorbing prose, Keith Scribner tells a cautionary tale about the times we live in. His story is both topical and extraordinary, certain to start many a debate on materialism and morality. The Goodlife is an exceptional debut heralding the arrival of a powerful new voice in American fiction.

Publishers Weekly Review of The GoodLife

An ordinary middle-aged New Jersey man, heavily in debt and sick of merely dreaming of wealth, cooks up a doomed kidnapping plot in Scribner’s provocative first novel, an astute and detailed comment on the American Dream’s criminal edge….Theo, a chronic screwup, has moved his wife, Colleen, and their whip-smart, anorexic teen daughter, Tiffany, back into the family home with his dad, Malcolm, a retired cop dying from emphysema, and saintly mom….Malcolm’s stubborn love for his arrogant, incompetent son is heartbreaking. Theo and Colleen ring true in their myopic delusions of grandeur, as Scribner perceptively skewers their self-deception, but his talents are most potently displayed in the sensitive portrayals of auxiliary characters like the lovable, wisecracking Tiffany and her conscientious grandpa Malcolm

The New York Times Review of The GoodLife

December 19, 1999

A fictive treatment of the real-life kidnapping of an oil executive in New Jersey.


Why is crime so fascinating? Because we suspect a secret criminal within? Because not much seems to separate the law-abiding citizen from murderers, rapists, thieves and swindlers? Keith Scribner’s first novel, ”The GoodLife,” dares us to ponder the question. Inspired by the 1992 kidnapping of an Exxon executive in suburban New Jersey, ”The GoodLife” traces three days in the lives of five characters: Stona Brown, a wealthy, retirement-age executive at Petrochem International; his wife, Nunny; Theo and Colleen Wolkoviak, Stona’s kidnappers; and Theo’s father, Malcolm, a retired detective.

Theo and Colleen, the putative villains, are quintessential aging boomers. Former owners of Hilton Head real estate and ”his-and-her white Mercedes,” they continually measure what they don’t have against what they do, which at the time of the novel’s action is little indeed. While they imagine themselves as ”creative, hard-working entrepreneurs,” they have 26 maxed-out credit cards and debt of ”five or six hundred thousand.” Now, living under Malcolm’s roof, they seek the ”single big haul” that will redeem them — pay for their daughter’s college and set up their retirement. Cloaking his desperation with self-help business-speak, Theo has decided to kidnap Stona and ransom him for $18 million. Theo’s experience as a policeman under his father’s supervision and as Petrochem’s security chief leverage his plan — or so he thinks.

But the kidnapping goes bad from the start, and we follow each of Theo’s mistakes with a sense of doom, not exactly rooting for him, but seeing the gap between his dreams and his reality widen by the hour. Listening to the kidnapping case on his police scanner is Malcolm, who though dying of emphysema remains an astute judge of the kidnappers’ abilities. ”Amateurish,” he pronounces. ”Seems impulsive. Irrational. Like maybe something got botched.” Yet Malcolm is so eager to believe Theo’s lie that he is putting together ”a big deal” at the local yacht club that he remains blind to the portents around him — like the police officer measuring the tire prints in his yard.

Colleen, for her part, is a loving wife — too loving and too weak to protest her husband’s plan. Also susceptible to the lures of affluence (even fantasizing about a flirtation with a Tony Robbins-like huckster), she tricks Stona into stopping his car so Theo can force him into a rental van. Colleen protests Theo’s imprisonment of Stona in an overheated ministorage locker but doesn’t stop him, choosing instead to perform her motherly role at home as if nothing were amiss.

Just as Theo and Colleen’s brutal act contrasts with their desire for conventional family happiness, so too is Stona’s victimhood complicated by his harsh nature. Although he loves his wife dearly, he has committed sins against her and others, to say nothing of his oil company’s effect on the environment. Yet his agony while kidnapped is wrenching. Locked in a stifling trunk, suffering from a minor bullet wound and a weak heart, he lapses from retrospection into hallucination in his attempts to control his fear. ”To bend his knees for one minute . . . for 30 seconds . . . he would trade his home.” He remembers negotiations with a Kuwaiti oil minister, sees his wife’s toes, imagines wandering through the local pharmacy. He attempts an accounting of his sins (”the real estate deal in Pennsylvania . . . scores of decisions that had harmed the lives of innocent people”) and promises God good deeds upon his release. We hope for his survival, we really do.

Nunny is hoping for it too, and with her house besieged by plodding F.B.I. agents and their ”strange insistent odors,” she retreats into recollection of her life with Stona, realizing that she has forced herself to accept Petrochem’s damage to the environment as the price of their affluence and the harmony of their marriage. Yet even as she pictures Stona’s suffering, she arrives at a cold fury against him, understanding that, while she has pleaded with him to retire, the job he has lived for so long may be the death of him.

The movement of a novel, even one as finely written as ”The GoodLife,” across five points of view is potentially disastrous: the writer risks a reader confused by the weave of the plot or bored with lesser characters. But Scribner, who teaches in Stanford University’s creative writing program, handles this challenge, cutting the focus not only to the action — Stona bound and gagged, Theo listening to his father’s police scanner — but smoothly away from it, too, into his characters’ troubled histories, always elaborating the sense that in premillennial America, failure is common, money is a fungible form of violence and the sum of hope can be ruin.

The drama, we realize, is not simply about the kidnapping of an oil-company executive and whether he will be rescued, but how one marriage strangely destroys another, how a father’s belief in his son endures naively for decades and how economic defeat pushes people through despair into savagery.