Pushback, by John E. Stith (ReAnimus Press)
I encountered the work of John E. Stith through his imaginative hard science fiction novels, Redshift Rendezvous and Manhattan Transfer (among others, but these were my gateway). I was curious to see what he would do with mainstream thriller material, and I was richly rewarded. Stith is not only thoroughly skillful in handling character, plot, and descriptive narrative, but in this book, he weaves together a dramatic, tension-filled plot with the main character’s struggles with PTSD. In fact, rarely have I seen a protagonist as functional yet scarred, and PTSD and the techniques for managing it so accurately depicted.
Dave Barlow has made a remarkable recovery from childhood trauma. He’s a successful investment adviser, and happy in a new romance after the death of his fiancée. Things start to go wrong in bizarre, inexplicable ways when he and his girlfriend show up for his high school reunion and no one there has heard of him. Soon it becomes apparent that someone is trying to systematically destroy every aspect of his life – his relationship, his career, his home, his assets . . . and then his very life. The most likely suspects include anyone outraged that he has found love again, like his dead fiancée’s wealthy, reclusive father.
Stith shapes the tension of this thriller with consummate skill, pushing each new threat ever higher. I especially admired how he used Dave’s inner turmoil and still-unhealed wounds to intensify the escalation of pressure. The dramatic story is extremely well handled, but most of all, it’s a compassionate, humane tale of the resourcefulness of a deeply damaged, yet sympathetic, courageous, loving person. Ultimately, it’s as much a story of hope as a page-turner thriller.