By Rosalie MacEachern
For The News
Set in Halifax in the late 1980s, Flagged Victor (Harper Collins, 29.99) by Keith Hollihan is a mesmerizing story of two morally indifferent university students who take up bank robbing. Authentic and insightful, it is apt to leave you gaping and moaning.
Chris, the son of a police officer, wants to test his theory that it is impossible to get caught while his partner, who narrates the story, believes the experience will make him a great writer. They enjoy the proceeds of their crimes but the robbing has more to do with the characters’ self-perception and carrying a loaded gun becomes something roughly equivalent to wearing a flashy watch.
Hollihan is a Canadian-born business analyst and ghost writer who now lives in Minnesota but the biographical information on the book cover is terse and his webpage is blank except for a few graphics. He is scheduled to be a guest at Word on the Street in Halifax next weekend. The geographical detail of the book suggests more than a passing knowledge of Halifax and Dartmouth, in particular, with its lakes, streets, subdivisions and shopping areas. The book is also inspired by the author’s boyhood friendship with a convicted bank robber.
Flagged Victor begins on a philosophical bent with the narrator musing about the works of Nietzsche and Kundera so if that is not your cup of tea, you need to be patient. Hollihan’s narrator sets up two definitive concepts – lightness and heaviness, believing his friend Chris, who leads a charmed life, depicts the former while he, constantly encumbered by angst, is the latter.
Against this philosophical meandering and rationalization, unfolds a story of a new kid in town and the slightly older boy who stands up for him, a deceptively nostalgic story of a couple of boys growing up free and wild before anyone knew there were such things as helicopter parents. These are boys who dare each other to jump into cold lake waters, build forts in the woods and get into scrapes of debatable seriousness that send them scattering from police. The boys grow into men, still hanging out but periodically avoiding each other and regularly resuming their old argument about their favourite movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The narrator is adamant the duo went down in a gunfight while Chris insists there is not a shred of evidence to support that conclusion.
The baffling title comes from a police term offered by Chris’s father when he is driving the boys to school in his patrol car. He stops a vehicle, determines the driver is considered dangerous and lets him go because he does not want to escalate the situation with the boys in the car.
The story is propelled along by two forces: the escalating daring and danger of their crime spree and the complexity of their relationship as it evolves from elementary school to university. The crime spree is tense and exhilarating, so much so that the reader hurtles through the woods with Chris and agonizes in the getaway car with the narrator. The boys’ relationship has to stretch to accommodate their burgeoning personalities, parental directives, varied periods of employment, the broadening horizons of university and, inevitably, the girls who interest them. Competitiveness, envy, carelessness and vengeance ebb and flow, butting up against loyalty and betrayal.
Hollihan clearly presents his narrator as unreliable early in the book but the plot and pacing carry the reader along and a pivotal foreshadowing is soon forgotten. The ending comes with a stomach-turning physicality but as Hollihan so convincingly demonstrates, truth is a subjective concept.