A Novel Way to Fight Corporate Greed
The two inspirations for Digger, a new novel by Joseph Flynn, are amazingly disparate: a Life magazine article about secret tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, and the labor strike of Armour workers at a plant in Rochester, Minnesota.Despite having no obvious connection to each other, Flynn fused the two sources wholesale, and the result is an intriguing premise for an entertaining book that is quick, economical, and thrilling. In Digger, a Vietnam veteran wages underground guerrilla warfare against a power-hungry businessman in the midst of a strike that is tearing a town apart. As Digger begins, the fictional town of Elk River, Illinois, is braced for a long and bitter and labor dispute involving workers at the Pentronics Systems plant and its new owner, Anthony Tiburon Hunt, who is quite possibly Beelzebub.The union is thrown into turmoil when its president, Tommy Boyle, is murdered. And the only person with the resourcefulness to find Boyle's killer is his nephew, Vietnam vet turned photographer John Fortunato. Fortunato has built a tunnel system underneath Elk River that is meant to mirror those in Vietnam. The tunnels, which he built with the help of two vet friends, are supposedly Fortunato's penance for never finding his commander in the Viet Cong's underground system. Now they are his best weapon against the ruthless Hunt.Flynn, a Chicago native, moved to Springfield from California in 1992 with a 700-page first draft of Digger in hand. At a party, he met Scott Murphy, a veteran who served in the same infantry unit as the novel's fictional Fortunato. And Murphy had been down in the Viet Cong tunnels, which were used to ambush and escape from American troops. "The odds of meeting this guy had to be astronomical," Flynn said of the chance encounter. Murphy told Flynn about his tunnel experiences in Vietnam, which the author said helped add realism to the book.Digger is Flynn's second published novel. His first, The Concrete Inquisition, was released by Signet as paperback original in 1993. In January 1996, after taking a look at Digger, Bantam signed Flynn to a two-book deal. "That was what let me stop doing...advertising," Flynn said. And last week, the forty-six-year-old writer sent his next thriller, tentatively titled Nailed, to his agent. Flynn also has two unpublished, unsold novels: a light mystery called Orwell's Pigs and a romantic comedy, Round Robin."A lot of people have suffered from trying to repeat their successes too often," Flynn said, defending his need to bounce from genre to genre. "You have to look for some variety in your work."For now, Flynn has the luxury of being unknown enough to try it. Stephen King, after all, can't try his hand at romantic comedy. "I'm sure it'll drive my publisher crazy," Flynn said. "I just like storytelling."And storytelling is what Flynn does best. His prose is a touch overcooked, and Digger is populated with familiar but hackneyed characters. A few sentences tell you all you need to know about each inhabitant of Elk River. A female union lawyer, we can tell, will be a hard-nosed warrior when warranted but also somebody's love interest, as Flynn tells us she's both beautiful and steely-eyed.This is not a criticism. A good thriller is fun even if you know exactly where it's headed. The joy is in getting there, and Flynn has constructed a densely plotted but quick novel that picks up steam and barrels along. Flynn is especially adept at setting his story in motion and keeping control of the narrative, in spite of the large number of characters and the plot's complexity.And there are some nice touches. Flynn has the minister of the local church paint over beautiful statuary as a reminder of the blight on the city as friends and family turn on one another. Flynn also creates a rich and vivid city history in a few short chapters, giving his narrative root in Elk River.The most remarkable feature about Digger, however, is how Flynn drops his characters into a tense situation, winds them up, and lets them run their course. Their actions never seem contrived or forced, while at the same time they're not predictable.The conclusion falters a bit, as Flynn is forced to tie up all his narrative strains, but that's a problem endemic to sprawling thrillers. But Digger is still a quick read, light, entertaining, and fun. Which is exactly what Flynn wanted."I don't pretend to be a so-called 'literature writer,'" Flynn said. "My goal is to write a good read, and to write it well."And like any writer who takes it seriously, Flynn is his own harshest critic and knows that when he's satisfied, he's probably done his work well. "I like my writing a lot," he said. And he has another important admirer. "My mother likes my books, too."