December 19, 1999
A fictive treatment of the real-life kidnapping of an oil executive in New Jersey.
By COLIN HARRISON
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.