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‘Swallow Savannah’ a first novel with promise

“Swallow Savannah,” by Ken Burger. Evening Post Publishing Co. with Joggling Board Press. Charleston, S.C. 2009. 223 pp. $26.95.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
dp1@salisburypost.com
For a first novel, “Swallow Savannah” has several pluses: It’s not overly long, some passages are very well-written, and the Southern setting breathes life into the characters.It has some minuses, too: Overly detailed descriptions of some characters, some unintentionally funny dialogue, and a sudden switch to gratuitous violence at the end.
Ken Burger is an award-winning sports columnist for the Charleston Post and Courier (the parent company of the Salisbury Post), which probably accounts for the brevity and style of the book.
The story involves Frank Finklea, a crooked, ignorant state senator who has been successful thanks to dirty dealings and manipulation.
His wife, poor, fragile Martha, cuts herself to overwhelm the pain her husband causes.
Their son, Tom, has nothing of his father in him and a serious drinking problem.
It takes place in Bluff County, S.C., in the late 1960s. The civil rights movement has come late to this Savannah River backwater and the fight is nasty.
Finklea is the same way, the kind of man who uses people and then kicks them to the curb. He has alienated a lot of people who remember his kind father-in-law. Kindness is not a virtue Frank aspires to.
The first part of the book sets up Frank’s, shall we say, lack of personal integrity.
Burger finishes up book one with this description of the man who has just orated on the benefits of a bill on the state’s jurisdiction over the Savannah River Plant:
“Each experience molded him into the perfect politician of his day ó a man whose sense of history dawned with each day and stretched no farther than his afternoon shadow.”
Finklea has just helped to pass a bill he did not read that allows the U.S. government to conduct secret radiation experiments on black workers at the plant.
Then Burger fast forwards to 1968, when Tom, a college dropout, is home working at his grandfather’s newspaper. He comes across the town’s police officer standing over the body of Charlie Lincoln, a promising black football player who had a future with a college scholarship.
The racial tension is set, but it ebbs and flows as the story moves from Columbia to imaginary Butler Island and an alcohol treatment center, then back to gritty Groton.
At Hancock Hall on Butler Island, Tom meets the mischievous Leon Feinbaum and sees a girl who used to pickle herself at the same bar Tom floundered in.
Here, Burger veers off course a bit as the boys discover Jeannie is being prostituted to a bunch of doctors (and a bunch of legislators) and decide to rescue her in a movie-worthy scene that ends up with, no kidding, Mickey Spillane to the rescue.
Spillane died in 2006, so there’s no telling what he thinks of the subplot that has him ditching a huge yacht.
Meanwhile, back at the nuclear plant, things are heating up. Someone knows something about the stuff that no one should know about. And men are dying of strange illnesses.
In steps Nick Nolan (I kept thinking of a young Nick Nolte), ace reporter, devil-may-care pursuer of truth, justice and the Nolan way.
We never find out how, but he has discovered the trouble Tom and company caused on Butler Island. And, it just so happens, he’s gotten wind of the problems at the nuclear plant.
Then he finds Tom.
Here’s where the book takes its violent turn, in the character of Chet Sloan, ex-Marine, special SBI agent sent to work security at the nuclear plant. Translation: Keep the experiments covered up.
As the story begins its climax, Sloan turns into a bazooka-toting, grenade-throwing maniac who kills first and doesn’t bother to ask questions. But we’re given no reason for this explosion of action-movie violence or the resulting carnage.In jumps justice, allowing our heroes to escape into the swamp and break their shocking story. Burger lets Tom have a happy ending ó although the coincidences line up a little too neatly and the future seems unnaturally bright.
Despite the flaws, it’s a healthy first effort. Burger took on lots of subplots and characters in what is a relatively short book. But he obviously has skills as a writer. He keeps the reader turning pages right through. Let’s see what he comes up with next.

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