I’d guess that author Stephen Wallenfels, of Tri-Cities, Washington, wrote his latest novel, “Deadfall,” with a predominantly male YA audience in mind. It is an edgy, contemporary thriller featuring teenaged, non-identical twin brothers Ty and Cory Bic.
I’m not a male, and I’m certainly not a young adult, but I was so gripped by the crafty unspooling of this tale that when I climbed into bed at night and settled in for my typical 20 minutes or so of reading, instead I found myself still turning pages an hour and a half later, hungrily consuming the plot twists and peril wired into every chapter. Book jacket blurbs are known for their hyperbole, but when the book jacket for “Deadfall” touted this tale as “unputdownable,” they got it right.
Wallenfels tells this story in two different strands: “now” and several months earlier.
The book opens with one of the “earlier” sequences. It is the twins’ 16th birthday, and their mom has already abandoned the family because of their dad’s abusive behavior.
To mark the day, Benny Bic takes his sons out of town and up into the Cascade Mountains. He drives them up a remote Forest Service road, then has them get out and bushwhack up a creek drainage, where he shows them a secret hideout he has outfitted as a kind of survivalist getaway.
In these early scenes, it’s clear that Benny’s substance abuse has turned him into an inept breadwinner and capriciously violent caregiver. He particularly picks on Cory, the overweight and closeted gay twin, because Ty has already developed major anger management issues.
Within just a few hair-raising chapters, the twins will be orphaned when their ne’er-do-well dad is brutally murdered.
But the author intersperses these “earlier” scenes with “now” chapters that take place 16 months later. In these, the boys, apparently on the run, are driving back up that same rough mountain road when they come upon a dying deer, and see fresh tire tracks careening off the road’s edge.
They’re creeped out, but they know they have to go see if anybody needs help, so they clamber down into the ravine and find the wreck of a car, overturned. There’s no sign of anybody around, but then they hear thumping coming from the trunk ...
In addition to creating a taut, multilayered narrative of survival, Wallenfels also does a primo job of developing characters who harbor secrets, rationales and fears. He explores how those can shape — or warp — an individual’s dreams.
The author probes themes of identity, family and nurturing, abuse of power, and courage to stand up to that abuse. He considers society’s responsibility for protecting children and punishing wrongdoers.
All of this is wrapped up in a heart-thumping plot that posits menace everywhere, even behind the facade of the most respectable institutions and families.
The only downfall of “Deadfall” is its ending. Perhaps Wallenfels felt he needed to end on an uplifting note, but he didn’t need to go all-out Cinderella on us.
The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at email@example.com.