The Mighty Oak
In Bens’s blistering latest (after Albert, Himself
), Tim “Oak” O’Connor is an enforcer for a West Texas Hockey League team. During a two-month suspension for injuring another player, Oak flies home to Boston for his mother’s funeral. There, he’s ashamed to be seen by Kate, his 14-year-old estranged daughter from a failed marriage. Oak, addicted to painkillers from all the damage the game has done to his body and mind, works odd (and sometimes illegal) jobs, such as stealing copper wiring from a demolition site with his old friend, Slats, now married to Oak’s ex and raising Kate, while reflecting on his years of absence and regrets. Oak gets some hope from a new relationship with Joan Linney, an attorney who defends him after he is arrested for hitting a cop, and bonds with Kip, a 14-year-old boy he rescues from bullying outside a hockey rink. Both Joan and Kip play an important role as Oak struggles to make a new life for himself, both in and out of the rink. Oak is deeply tragic, a man of good intentions who is dogged by bad luck and worse impulse control; the author makes his story an emotionally fraught and enriching one for the reader. Filled with memorable characters, pungent dialogue, and a lean, hard-bitten writing style, Bens’s superb novel brilliantly faces down traditional notions of manhood. (Sept.)
Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly noted this was the author's first novel.