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Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009 06:15 am

Affair in a Chicago heat wave

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Midway through Beautiful Piece, an entertaining and gritty novel written in the noir style of mysteries, I began to have an eerie feeling. Imagine, if you will, the look on the face of Bill Murray each morning at 6 a.m. when he awakens to the sound of Cher belting out the lyrics to “I got you babe!” Just as the character portrayed by Murray in Groundhog Day, readers of this novel by Joseph Peterson will find themselves in that perpetual cycle, repeating a snapshot moment of life. In Beautiful Piece, that moment is a hot August day during a brutal heat wave in Chicago when Robert, the narrator, meets Lucy at a gas station and begins a torrid affair that serves as the cornerstone event upon which Peterson constructs his debut novel.

For Robert, the affair with Lucy is new. He is 35 years old, living alone in a dumpy apartment, primarily worried about dying alone in the heat wave that is killing hundreds. He enters into a pact with his upstairs neighbor, simply identified as “The Vet.” They agree to call each other every day to be certain that neither has died overnight. To be safe, Robert also has his friend Epstein, a more stable and well-adjusted friend, call him every third morning to ascertain his well-being. Robert’s worst fear is that he will die alone in his room.

Chapter by chapter and page by page, reading Beautiful Piece is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Many small pieces of information standing alone are of no significance, but after a while the seemingly meaningless bits come together to form a larger part of the picture.

Early on Robert learns that Lucy is engaged to Matthew Gliss, an acquaintance of Robert who he knows and likes. Lucy warns Robert that if Matthew walks through the doors and sees them together, Robert must get out as soon as possible. “Run, don’t walk, and hide. If you give him a chance to catch you, he will probably most likely also want to kill you.”  Robert’s attraction to Lucy makes the warning hollow.

Seemingly, the title character of the novel is a Glock automatic. Robert has no use for guns and makes that point clear one day in a discussion with The Vet. Perhaps misunderstanding, perhaps hearing what he wants to hear, The Vet offers to get Robert a gun. Soon they travel to a nearby dump for a little target practice. The chilling climax of Beautiful Piece is stark and clear. In retrospect, it was ordained from the moment Robert helped Lucy with her credit card at the gas station.

NIU Press is establishing a new series called Switchgrass Books that will be devoted to fiction. They are billing the venture as “authentic voices of the Midwest.” Beautiful Piece is an intriguing novel that starts the series on a quality note.

Stuart Shiffman served for 22 years as an Illinois trial judge. He is a frequent contributor to bookreporter.com, where he concentrates on legal novels and books about history, football and golf.

Beautiful Piece by Joseph G. Peterson. Northern Illinois University Press, 206 pp.

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