FLYING CROWS

James Lehrer, Author, Jim Lehrer, Author
James Lehrer, Author, Jim Lehrer, Author . Random $23.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4000-6197-6
Reviewed on: 02/02/2004
Release date: 05/01/2004
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A Kansas City police detective tries to untangle the curious pasts of two asylum patients in this touching novel about lost souls, loneliness and life's small triumphs. Lt. Randy Benton, assigned to make the final sweep of the city's long-shuttered Union Station before restoration work begins, finds an aging hermit, alive and well in a concealed room that used to be a restaurant pantry in the old railroad terminal. The hermit, Birdie Carlucci, says he's been living at the station since 1933. A railroad buff himself, Benton is stirred by Birdie's tale of "a great life" at the station as well as intrigued by the old man's account of escaping more than 60 years ago from a nearby insane asylum with a friend, Josh. Benton, working in his spare time, begins piecing together the story of the two men, a search that takes him deep into the golden age of rail travel as well as the unnerving history of the treatment of the mentally ill in the early years of the century. Both Josh and Birdie, it turns out, witnessed awful tragedies as young boys, traumas so disturbing that they wound up in the asylum, where they were routinely hit with baseball bats and threatened with electric shock therapy as well as lobotomy. Their stay served as the basis for a bond that gave each a reason to live—and escape. Shifting narrators as well as settings between 1933 and 1997, Lehrer's 14th novel is an expertly researched, warmly told tale, rich in suspense and drama. The PBS newscaster (No Certain Rest ) has crafted a highly personal story, quiet in tone and scope, yet booming in emotional intensity. 11-city author tour. (May 18)

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