Parallel Lies

by Ridley Pearson

Published by Hyperion

356 pages, 2001


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Derailed

Reviewed by David Abrams

 

There's a high-speed bullet train at the center of Ridley Pearson's novel Parallel Lies and it's designed to propel first-class riders from Point A to Point B in record time without spilling a drop of champagne along the way. Sleek, slick, sublime.

The same could be said about the book's plot. It's a quick read with Pearson fully at the controls in the engine room. Too bad he gets derailed by clunky writing.

Pearson handles the English language like a grease-fingered thief grabbing the Mona Lisa. Subtlety and nuance slip through his grasp and crash to the ground. Cliché is the order of the day in the story of a mild-mannered schoolteacher whose wife and children are killed in a train-crossing accident and who then plots revenge on the railroad corporation:

He felt only a sharp, unforgiving pain where he should have felt his heart. Nearly two and a half years had passed, but still he couldn't adjust to life without them. Friends had comforted him, saying he would move on, but they were wrong. He'd lost everything and now he'd given up everything. To hell with sleep. To hell with his so-called life. He'd turned himself over to the grief, succumbed to it. He had purpose, and that purpose owned him: Payment for atrocities against him and his family would be made in full. If not, he would die trying.

Then again, we don't always read thrillers for their subtle nuances, do we? To hell with so-called art, just gimme the junk-food pleasures of pulp. No, the only question on our minds when we're standing in the airport bookshop looking to grab something for that four-hour flight is this: "Will it keep me awake?"

Well, sure it will. Parallel Lies will pound your pulse and dry your mouth. There's no question about Pearson's skill in that department. His research is impeccable, his pacing is tidy, his characters are thicker than your average cardboard cutout. And yet is it too much to ask for the music of words in the bargain?

All syntax grumbles aside, Parallel Lies does its job with admirable economy as we're thrust into the action from the get-go. Umberto Alvarez, the grieving husband from the paragraph quoted above, is out to bring Northern Union Railroad (and especially its CEO, William Goheen) to its knees for what he claims is a corporate cover-up conspiracy. He exacts his revenge by derailing Northern Union freight trains while plotting an even bigger accident during the test run of the company's new bullet train.

Ex-cop Peter Tyler tracks Alvarez as he hops from train to train around the country. While Alvarez seeks revenge, Tyler seeks redemption for an ugly incident involving a child beater which got him thrown off the Washington, D.C. force. Now working as a temporary investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, he's called in to help with the "Railroad Killer" case. Joining him is Nell Priest, a black female gumshoe with Northern's security division. Their relationship takes a Hollywood turn for the worse as they "meet cute," squabble, then (did you see it coming?) fall in love. Along the way, they've got their own cliché derailments to worry about:

"You've just given me goose bumps," she said.

She gave him more than goose bumps, as he recalled from the night before. He wondered what a relationship with her would be like. He'd never been with a black woman. How far apart were their worlds?

Father apart than the distance from Mr. Pearson's imagination to the pen in his hand, apparently.

If you can set aside the B-movie dialogue and the occasional implausibility, then Parallel Lies is a quick, mostly-exciting ride. Some scenes even make a whistle stop at White-Knuckle Station. | September 2001

 

David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.