The Mercy Killers – Lisa Reardon

I first discovered Reardon a few years back when I read Billy Dead, a novel that continues to haunt me. The Mercy Killers has been on my tbr shelf for ages but I kept putting off reading it because its subject matter didn’t really appeal to me. Once I started it, though, I couldn’t put it down.

Lisa Reardon writes about characters who live in a world vastly different from my own. They are broken-down people whose lives are messy – filled with violence and alcohol and drugs and hopelessness.

The Mercy Killers concerns the fortunes (and misfortunes) of a group of people who hang out at Gil McGurk’s bar. When the novel opens, one of the regulars, Old Jerry, is complaining about his inability to take a bath. He wants to die.  It’s his birthday.

PT is one of Old Jerry’s grandsons. He’s nineteen and developmentally delayed after suffering one too many beatings at the hands of his father. Charlie, PT’s younger brother, is a petty criminal. He hangs out with Gino whose “bottle blue eyes and falling black hair” make him attractive to Gil’s daughter, Katie. Thing is, Gino’s not interested in women.

When PT decides to grant his grandfather’s wish and smothers him with a pillow, Charlie and Gino decide to cover up the crime. This propels the novel forward; Charlie ends up in Vietnam. Gino, too.

Although these characters weren’t familiar to me – the bonds of family and friendship, the small acts of kindness  in unexpected places certainly were. Charlie is fiercely protective of his older brother, the brother who had put himself in harm’s way to protect him against their violent father as children. Although Charlie is not without his flaws, he has the potential to be decent and it is this inherent goodness on which other characters (Gino in particular) hang their hopes.

Reardon’s writing is propulsive. As with Billy Dead I couldn’t stop turning the pages. I wanted one of these characters to break the cycle of violence and addiction. While there’s no question that Vietnam has a role to play in this book – and that the psychological aftermath of that horrific war adds another layer of despair to the lives of the characters – it is clear that sometimes our own choices cause just as much pain.

As I was surfing around the web looking for a picture of the book, I came across a few stories about Reardon’s personal life. In August 2009, she shot her father. She didn’t kill him, but apparently she meant to. From what I have read, it seems like there was some bad blood between them. When asked whether he knew of any reason Lisa would want to harm him he said “yes,” but wouldn’t elaborate.

Perhaps the marginalized and damaged characters Reardon writes about are cut from personal cloth. I feel badly that she’s had some  trouble. I think she’s an amazing writer.

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