Matt Pavelich's The Other Shoe is a novel of many layers and overlays. A horrible crime is committed in the first chapter, but it is not a crime novel. Despite the fact that much mystery surrounds the commission of the crime, it is not a mystery thriller. There are some insightful and engaging descriptions of interactions between a prosecutor, a public defender, a defendant, a judge, and even among inmates in a county jail. Furthermore, there is a vivid description of a court trial, but this is not a legal thriller either. It is a book that resists, one could say defies, categorization.
Publishers Weekly called it "haunting," which it most assuredly is, and a "clever crime drama," which it most assuredly is not. There is nothing formulaic about this novel.
Pavelich's simple description is that it is "a story of good people doing bad things; moral people who are all compromised by circumstances beyond their control." Their reactions could have been different, but they had no control over the circumstances in which they found themselves. It is all of that, and more. It is a story about love, sacrifice, resiliency, a sense of responsibility and accountability, and perhaps most of all, integrity.
It is a character study of two outsiders in western Montana, Henry and Karen Brusett, who live in a remote and isolated area that separates them from most of society. They are not outcasts for society did not force them to live in such circumstances. No, they are outliers, drawn to each other, who have voluntarily chosen to remain apart from society insofar as it is possible. Their marriage has had the effect of isolating them even more, partly because nobody can understand why Karen married such a strange man who is twice her age. They would be even more puzzled if they knew that Karen had to talk Henry into marrying her.
Henry's livelihood had been harvesting trees. However, he was seriously injured when he misread a tree he was cutting down. The accident left him with a mangled body that was constantly in pain and a mangled personality that caused him to suffer from anxiety. As a result, he was addicted to two things: pain pills and solitude.
When Karen joined Henry at his remote home on Fitchet Creek shortly after finishing high school (she had 'entered high school without a friend in the world' and made none while there), it became for her "a paradise with a short half-life, ten acres where they offended no one and where kindness, of all things, was the prevailing order." As for Henry, "his wife was as much society" as he "would ever tolerate."
In the end, however, the outside world intruded when a young man was killed and these two lost souls who wanted nothing more than to just be left alone, found themselves caught up in a bewildering judicial system, lacking the knowledge that might allow them to cope with it.
It is also a character study of two other people: Hoot Meyers, an experienced prosecutor who practices law in order to support a losing proposition, his ranch; and Giselle Meany, an inexperienced, overworked, underpaid public defender. Twelve times the two have faced off against each other in courtroom trials and the score is eleven to one in favor of the prosecutor. It is not a record that inspires confidence in the indigent defendants whose fate rests in her hands.
Giselle Meany was the public defender because she was the low bidder. Astonishingly, before Montana in recent times went to a statewide public defender system, county governments contracted the job on an annual basis. The only legal requirement for the office was that the individual be licensed to practice law in the state of Montana. Meany as a single mother with a young daughter was not willing to spend the inordinate number of hours that many law firms required of their young attorneys. After seeing an ad for the public defender's office in Conrad County she submitted a bid and because it was probably the lowest submitted, she got the job -- for that year, anyway. Each year she had to submit a new bid in order to maintain her position. Out of her salary, she also had to rent an office, buy office furniture, and pay the salary of a part time secretary. She began the job with no mentor to advise her and no examples or precedents to follow and no assistants. She was the public defender office. Because he was indigent, Henry Brusett became one of her clients.
Hoot Meyers as County Attorney did have a budget, but since the county is a poor, rural one, containing only three small towns, he had no assistants either. However, he was a more experienced attorney who also had the advantage of living his entire life in the area and thus was much more familiar with the county and its people.
However, knowing the people of the county turned out to be a disadvantage when Meyers found himself in the position of having to prosecute Henry Brusett, a man he had known since they were children attending the same grammar school. He remembered Henry "as a simple and immaculately sane boy" who "was generous to a deep fault." Furthermore, Henry was "the only citizen in the county to whom Meyers owed any specific loyalty." To find out why, you must read the book, because I'm not telling.
I'm also not going to divulge the book's shattering, shocking conclusion. Pavelich said in an interview on Montana Public Radio that he thought the conclusion was inevitable. The interviewer stated that she didn't see it coming and I certainly did not and I wonder if anybody else could have either.
Pavelich is not only a talented writer, but he is also able to identify with the trials and tribulations of prosecutors and public defenders in Montana. He should, since he has served in both capacities. After all, he once submitted the low bid.
Daniel Woodrell who writes critically acclaimed noirish novels set in the Missouri Ozarks wrote in a blurb on the back cover of my copy of THE OTHER SHOE: "Matt Pavelich is a native Montanan, he knows that world inside and out, and THE OTHER SHOE is rich with details that convince, insights that amaze. His prose is among the most impressive now being written, elegant, nuanced, rough when needed, the high and low of language. THE OTHER SHOE is a brilliant novel of crime, love, and the American West."
It is easy to see why Woodrell is impressed with this novel; move it to the Missouri Ozarks and he could have written it. It is that good.
This is a haunting, harrowing, horrifying, and, ultimately, heartbreaking story that will stay with the reader for a long time. I have already read it twice this year and I am sure that there will be a third reading at some point in the future. It is Pavelich's second novel and I am looking forward to reading his first: OUR SAVAGE.