Mike McCrary’s ‘Steady Trouble’ is a Hollywood action film in print form

  • Kirkus Reviews
12:00 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017 Insight and Books
‘From Here to Eternity,’ Caitlin Doughty

A woman’s recent addition to a trust fund could earn her a windfall — provided the other beneficiaries don’t kill her first — in Mike McCrary’s “Steady Trouble.”

Texas bartender Theodora, better known as Steady Teddy, has had trouble with her memory since she sustained brain trauma when she was 18. Her injury stems from a home invasion resulting in her parents’ murders, an incident that an unknown man, sitting at her bar one night, inexplicably knows all about. The stranger, Gordon, makes Teddy an offer — a “life changer” — that involves a visit to New York City. As she’s evidently incited dangerous individuals with her money-making, after-hours poker games, Teddy agrees. She meets wealthy but dying New Yorker Jonathan McCluskey, who wants to make Teddy the sixth beneficiary to his trust fund. McCluskey only knows her from the bar but deems her more deserving of his money than his despised family. Perusing the trust documents, however, Teddy reads that her fellow beneficiaries (McCluskey’s wife and sons) will want her dead — and will likely try to make that happen. The typically wary woman, who’s prone to violent outbursts and blackouts, will have to rely on relative strangers for help, along with her wits and her trusty baseball bat by her side. McCrary’s (“Remo Went Down,” 2017) raucous novel is a Hollywood action film in print form, sizzling with fights of the gun and fist varieties. There’s little room for plot development, but further details of both Teddy’s parents and the McCluskey clan are revealed later. Though she often resorts to rage, Teddy is surprisingly winsome. In her lively first-person narrative, for example, she calls McCluskey the “pre-death dude,” and when a couple of uninvited armed men sit at her diner booth, she drolly poses the question of asking for separate checks. The speedy tale takes readers on a car chase or two before an inevitable showdown in California, with the ending stamped with a final twist and set-up for a sequel.

“Steady Trouble” has unmitigated energy, aided by a protagonist as captivating as she is formidable.

(McCrary will speak and sign copies of his book starting at 7 p.m. Nov. 6 at BookPeople. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: bookpeople.com.)

Changing attitudes toward death

In “From Here to Eternity,” a follow-up to Caitlin Doughty’s well-received debut, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” a mortician delivers a wide-eyed report on burial customs across the world.

At the unique funeral parlor she owns and operates in Southern California, Doughty adopts a “younger, progressive” approach to burial protocol. Unwilling to accept the way that the necessity of “deathcare” has evolved into such a commercialized and bureaucratic industry, the inquisitive undertaker presents her globe-trotting experiences exploring and appreciating the eccentric and widely diverse death rituals across international cultures. In offering opposing perspectives that dignify, celebrate and decorate the body in its expired state, Doughty hopes to do her part in spurring a reform of the funeral industry and to help change the squeamishness of Western attitudes toward death and the sanctity of the sacred burial. Her fascinating tour of rituals contains liturgies that readers will surely observe as rare, macabre, unbelievable, ancient and precious — sometimes simultaneously. Among them: a Central American body thief validates why he confiscated his grandmother’s body from a hospital; a cremation via community open-air pyre in Colorado (the only one of its kind in America), complete with flute and didgeridoo accompaniment; mummification restorations in Indonesia; and the glass encasement coffins of Barcelona: “Glass means transparency, unclouded confrontation with the brutal reality of death. Glass also means a solid barrier. It allows you to come close but never quite make contact.” In Japan, where corpses were once perceived to be impure, now they are revered as beloved and their memorialization has been fully ritualized with the aid of technology and innovation. Green, eco-friendly “human composting” methods also have their place in the author’s entertaining and thought-provoking narrative. Grimly enhanced by the artwork of Blair, these observances demonstrate how to diminish the stigma associated with death, burial and eternal remembrance.

Death gets the last word in this affably written, meticulously researched study of funerary customs.