I recently read Stephen J. Golds’ debut Say goodbye when I’m gone and absolutely loved it so when the opportunity presented itself to read and review Always the Dead ahead of its publication on January 29, I jumped on that and I was not disappointed. I was warned that the book is very dark and, yes, much like Say goodbye when I’m gone, Always the dead is bleak, brutal, and not for the faint of heart.
This time, Golds takes us to 1949 Los Angeles where main character Scott Kelly, a war veteran and mobster sits his tuberculosis out in ward, wondering where his lover, young actress Jean Spangler has gone. Fighting a weakening health and war demons, Kelly sets out to look for her.
His quest is interspersed with bouts of PTSD, horror visions from the war and the horrific battle of Okinawa, doubled with flashbacks from his past, youth, marriage, and the various kills that he can’t forget.
As the story unravels, and the frantic search for Jean goes on, Scott’s physical and mental condition worsen and his past comes to haunt him with increasingly frequent visions, violent episodes of his life replaying; every time more confusing and distorted, blurry sensations of love, loss, shame and trauma, nightmares mixing reality and fantasy, and revealing Scott’s inner soul through those raw, fragmented memories.
“A young, good looking kid was trying to fix a smoking half-track, he grinned at me and pointed to the large gaping crater in his forehead,
It’s a never-ending circle of bullshit and blood, he said.
A telephone was ringing.
My father was wearing a blue corduroy jacket, digging into the dirt, looking for mussels and cockles for our supper. He held bullet casings in his palms and showed them to me.
It’s sink or fucking swim Boy, he said.
A telephone was ringing.
A little girl shivering, covered in muck and insects.
She had the pneumonia and was trembling, holding out her hands to me, calling me Daddy, Daddy, Daddy. I told her I was sorry, but I didn’t have any stories with happy endings, she wasn’t supposed to have been there. She went to sleep with a bloody hole in her chest. I tried to hold her in my arms, but she went to New York with her mother. Every time I tried to hold her, she turned to shit and mud in my hands.”
Jean Spangler represents the only constant and ray of light in Scott’s otherwise bleak and lonely post-war life. Though he claims to love the young starlet and risks his life to find her, he never once tells her and Jean’s affirmation “You don’t love me, you love the way I make you feel” reveals a twisted facet to a passionate relationship doubled with a need for validation, possession, a quest for power and a desire to play with fire which leads to the frantic quest for the actress.
Scott seems to be surrounded by characters that will or have betrayed him, all linking back to his shadiest actions, closing up on him as the story unravels, while his family and allies fade into increasingly distant memories, until he meets an unexpected partner who will help him in his quest for answers, revenge and closure.
Always the dead portrays an unlikeable main character that the reader will feel conflicted about, torn between routing for the damaged soul who is trying to set things right and loathing for the cold-blooded narcissist. This duality of Scott Kelly is represented by the alternance of brutality and romance, devotion and abuse in a scenario that, like all good crime books, keeps on upping the tension, leaving the reader flying through the last couple of chapters until the explosive finale.
Deeply atmospheric, amazingly scenic, brave and beautifully written, with fascinating characters and a tight intrigue, Always the dead ticks all the boxes. An outstanding read.
Stephen J. Golds
Stephen J. Golds was born in London, U.K, but has lived in Japan for most of his adult life. He enjoys spending time with his daughters, reading books, traveling, boxing and listening to old Soul LPs.
His novel Say Goodbye When I’m Gone was released by Red Dog Press in October 2020 Always the Dead will be released by Close to The Bone Press in January 2021
Reviewed by B.F. Jones
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