Small Town Sins
Ken Jaworowski’s Small Town Sins is a debut and a crime novel. The combination on its own would be intriguing to many readers, however, the tightly packed multifaceted plot does much to recommend the book as well.
Rather than focusing on a specific individual, the book focuses on the journeys of three people and those around them in the town of Lockesburg, Pennsylvania. Once a fairly well-off town with a thriving coal industry, it has begun to dry up with under 5,000 people living there and an economy so weak that it can’t even afford a full-time priest. For many living throughout the US in various towns affected by this or other declining industries, it will be a familiar atmosphere, hopeless and yet stubbornly determined. While geography in detail is rarely important to the piece, even small notes like distances seem appropriate without familiarity or research, managing to make the situation understood in a believable and rapid fashion.
Nathan is the first lead readers will meet, fairly early in his life. He made mistakes young that he spent the rest of his life regretting, even as he thought he built a relatively happy life. Andy is an individual readers get to experience as he loses everything that mattered even after struggling desperately against his worst desires. Callie is a nurse with a bit of an attitude, trying desperately to help a terminally ill patient. Each starts off quite sympathetic, even when the actions they take are contemptible or horrifying from early on.
While their stories do touch one another at times, none of them truly become interlaced together in the end as many might expect of such a story. Instead, the ways they collide and connect are a beautiful example of life in such a town, with little offhand mentions and interactions that seem like startling key incidents from one point of view and a mere moment in life from another.
Despair is the primary theme of the book, appropriate enough with a dying city and damaged people. The need for an escape is treated as dangerous, a potential way to more destruction and pain. This seems to be true for the author whether that escape is religious belief (which helps to contribute to the misery of children especially), ill-gotten financial gain (which is treated as pointless and destructive), or romantic relationships (which are treated as risky endeavors ending usually in heartbreak). It is appropriate to the thriller and crime nature of this volume that ambiguity and depression seep through it, a sort of middle American noir dealing in a culture that is collapsed and broken.
Everything from drug use to pedophilia is referenced in this book, small crimes and large sins that would easily be found in just such a community as the title describes. The way it affects the individual characters is insightful, both from a personal change point of view and the simple knock-on effects for the world all around them.
Small Town Sins is a brilliant first novel. Disturbing, dark, twisted, and believable, it fits well into the American crime fiction tradition without ever coming close to joining the ranks of the detective story. Less Dashiell Hammett and more James M. Cain, this book represents a bleak look into a culture that is easy to recommend to fans of the genre.