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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.