Review: A Novel of Two Lives Haunted by Past Tragedy

This first-time novel by attorney Jim McDermott engages the reader with a sweeping tale of a working-class father and son struggling to overcome immense personal losses and aspiring to a life of dignity and freedom.

George Johnson Sr., and his son, George Jr., know what it is to lose love, the kind of love a mother and sister bring to the men in a family. Throughout the book, McDermott harkens back to the traffic accident that claimed the lives of Mary and 2-year-old Susan Johnson by opening a portal into the deepest feelings of both father and son. Neither of them seem capable of truly moving beyond the loss, which clouds their happiness as the years go by.

Somehow this inability to process such an emotional, devastating blow to the family structure doesn’t derail the senior Johnson’s determination to raise George Jr. as a strong, independent man. George Sr.’s attempts to push his son to reach his potential often stem from his own sense of failure.

A promising career as a pro baseball player is cut short when George and Mary discover she is pregnant. They marry, have George Jr. and his sister, and soon George Sr.’s path is chosen for him as he accepts stable work at a local factory. It’s where he stays for the rest of his working life and it’s what George Jr. sees as a path to avoid at all costs.

In this novel, set in the 1970s and early ‘80s in upstate New York where the class differential is stark, McDermott weaves a story line that takes George Jr. on a course of youthful, often dangerous indiscretions that could derail his father’s dream that his son break free of the stranglehold experienced by blue class workers. Limited choices, economic restrictions, and little room for promotion plague George Sr.’s waking hours as he tells George Jr. that education will open doors to a different, better life.

The two men’s struggle to overcome the stagnation plaguing working class families is palpable. As George Jr. grows up, he realizes his intelligence could be the way out – if he doesn’t screw things up before he can cash in. The early introduction of a widow who befriends the pair and her influence on George Jr., along with the lifelong devotion provided by a family dog, offer some comfort and a necessary dose of unconditional love to the storyline.

As the novel progresses and we learn more about the forces shaping the lives of George Sr. and his son, questions are raised that need answering. How does anyone rise above the circumstances of birth? For those stuck in go-nowhere jobs with little opportunity to escape, is there a pathway to success? Or, as George Sr. says about his fellow factory workers: “Once these guys’ve been in the clean room for a few years, they don’t buck the system like they did in their youths. At first they resist, but eventually they fall in line.”

McDermott’s ability to illuminate the tensions between father-and-son, the working class and elite, and the human desire to be in power, keeps the storyline moving. McDermott cleverly brings father and son closer together through the ensuing years as each discovers in this gripping character study that, in the end, they are fighting the same demon.

Jim McDermott is a nationally recognized business litigation attorney based in Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He has worked on an assembly line and also represented multinational corporations. He is a graduate of Syracuse University and the University of Virginia Law School. Bitter is the Wind, which he worked on for 25 years, is his first novel.

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