The Other Shoe
Matt Pavelich
320 pages, softcover: $16.95.
Counterpoint, 2012.

It's a story as old as storytelling itself: A young man leaves his home in search of adventure before settling down to the responsibilities of adulthood. But in Matt Pavelich's second novel, The Other Shoe, the story is less about the traveler and more about the aftermath of the journey. Calvin Teague, a 24-year-old pharmacy student from Iowa, is really only "fit to run a small circuit through thoroughly expected events." Nevertheless, he sets off to see the Pacific Ocean. His car breaks down near Red Plain, a fictional small town in western Montana. It will take days to repair, he's told, and so he attempts his own version of the hero's journey by strapping on a backpack and striding off down Highway 200. He is soon reported dead, though, and Karen and Henry Brusett, locals who know what happened and why, refuse to talk. So Henry is arrested and sent to jail.

Pavelich -- an author and attorney from Hot Springs, Mont. -- writes his cast of small-town characters true and deep, avoiding artifice and stereotype. The county attorney, Hoot Meyers, a hometown boy, "knew every living soul in Conrad County, frequently knew their whole genealogy and how they were likely to behave in a given situation." Now he has to build a murder case against his old friend Henry, a physically disabled man with "a form of high anxiety, a severe case of something to do with other people." Karen, a backwoods beauty, learned early on "to stay quiet, to act as if she'd lost the power of speech altogether," a skill that comes in handy during her interrogation by local law enforcement officials. The delightfully named public defender, Giselle Meany, has "a reputation as a meddlesome fool (whose) heart (is) worn on a sleeve and bleeding inexhaustibly, without discretion."

The people in The Other Shoe are haunting and memorable characters, bound tightly to their past by local history and folklore. Pavelich unwinds his intriguing plot slowly, reflecting the pace of life in rural America. By the last page, anyone who has ever lived in a small town is likely to think, This really could have happened.


This review by Chérie Newman was first published in the July 23, 2012 issue of High Country News.

Use the PRX player below to hear Chérie Newman's conversation with Matt Pavelich about The Other Shoe.