THE GOODLIFE is tagged on the back cover as being “Based On a True Story” — and indeed, it is a very fictionalized account of an actual event, that being the ransom kidnapping of a high profile CEO by a desperately broke suburban couple a few years ago. But even if you happen to know that particular story by chapter and verse, you will still find reading THE GOODLIFE a rewarding experience.
Keith Scribner, author of THE GOODLIFE, wisely chose to focus his literary camera on the emotions of the principals involved. The reader accordingly gets to take long, revealing looks into the psyches of members of two families, the Wolkoviaks and the Browns, whose lives are about to collide and be irrevocably changed for the worse. Theo Wolkoviak is on the long downside of 40. He is married to his high school sweetheart, a homecoming queen princess who can still turn heads, and has a son in college and a daughter with an eating disorder that appears to be out of control. Wolkoviak has two major problems: an inability to control his impulses and an ability to blame everyone but himself for anything in his life that goes wrong. A series of job terminations and financial reversals leave him and his family no option but to return to the home of his parents to live and to hopefully regroup. Malcolm Wolkoviak, a former police chief who is inexorably succumbing to emphysema, can spot the results of his son’s weaknesses but is unable to see the root causes, giving his son opportunity after opportunity to redeem himself long after any redemption is reasonably possible. Theo purportedly is working on a major project for the president of a local country club, a project he claims will straighten out his financial problems. What Theo and his wife are plotting, however, is the kidnapping for ransom of Stona Brown, an oil company CEO, for 18 million dollars.
Theo has everything plotted down to the last detail, and it is here that Scribner demonstrates that he has the chops to become a major literary talent. He quite deftly presents Theo as a man who is detail-oriented yet, before a single element of the kidnapping is carried out, also shows him to carry the seeds of his own destruction and failure. It is quite clear within the first few pages of THE GOODLIFE that if Theo succeeds it’s going to be by accident. It is far more likely that for all his attention to plan and detail things are going to go horribly wrong for Theo, his wife, his children, and his parents — and, of course, for Stona as well. As the story of Theo’s big plans unfold, we learn his motivation, his wife’s pie-in-the-sky-dreams, and the secret sins of all involved. Yet as one dream decomposes and simultaneously explodes, in the end another is born. No one wins in THE GOODLIFE; a couple of people, however, break even. Sometimes that is the best that can be expected.
THE GOODLIFE is Scribner’s first novel; he reportedly is working on a second, which, on the strength of THE GOODLIFE, should be worth a long, lingering loo k. This is an important work that reads as if it was a collaboration between John Cheever and Donald Westlake. Very highly recommended.
—Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub
(c) Copyright 2001, Bookreporter.com. All rights reserved.