The Goodlife

Keith Scribner, Author Riverhead Hardcover $23.95 (208p) ISBN 978-1-57322-143-6

An ordinary middle-aged New Jersey man, heavily in debt and sick of merely dreaming of wealth, cooks up a doomed kidnapping plot in Scribner's provocative first novel, an astute and detailed comment on the American Dream's criminal edge. The narrative traces one hellish weekend in the life of a loving but deluded family, the Wolkoviaks. After the failure of yet another harebrained entrepreneurial scheme, Theo, a chronic screwup, has moved his wife, Colleen, and their whip-smart, anorexic teen daughter, Tiffany, back into the family home with his dad, Malcolm, a retired cop dying from emphysema, and saintly mom. Unbeknownst to Malcolm, who worries endlessly over Theo's future, Theo has cooked up a crazy plan to kidnap Stona Brown, the head of Petrochem (the company that fired Theo before he started his latest doomed business), who lives close by. Coercing Colleen into helping him, Theo plots to keep his victim in a homemade plywood box in a storage locker, and plans to demand an $18-million ransom. But the kidnapping goes wrong from the beginning. Theo accidentally shoots Brown before locking him in the box and neglects to recognize his captive's worsening condition as several days go by. Colleen unravels as the consequences of their act dawn on her, and when Brown dies, she turns on Theo. Meanwhile, Malcolm's stubborn love for his arrogant, incompetent son is heartbreaking, yet his dormant professional instincts slowly waken, and he unwillingly but doggedly leads the investigators, whom he's known for decades, to his own home, and his family's ruin. Scribner based his book on the actual 1992 kidnapping of an Exxon executive in New Jersey, incorporating an effective warning about the narcotic effect of materialism: Theo's enterprises foster his pathetic but unshakable self-confidence, and Colleen dreams of achieving world-class status as a Goodlife products sales rep. Theo and Colleen ring true in their myopic delusions of grandeur, as Scribner perceptively skewers their self-deception, but his talents are most potently displayed in the sensitive portrayals of auxiliary characters like the lovable, wisecracking Tiffany and her conscientious grandpa Malcolm. (Oct.)