Purgatory Chasm, a quarter-mile-long granite gorge in Sutton, Mass., was formed 14,000 years ago when dammed-up glacial melt suddenly broke free and tore a gash in the ice-age landscape. Today, it’s a favorite of weekend hikers and picnickers. I took my kids there a few times myself when they were little.
Purgatory Chasm is also the name of a debut crime novel by a New Englander named Steve Ulfelder, a writer whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe, and who now owns a company that builds race cars.
In the novel, the chasm is more than just a chasm. It is also a metaphor for the yawning gap that sometimes exists between parent and child. And in this novel, almost no one seems to have had a happy childhood. As the dark story unfolds, the sorry pasts of character after character are revealed. A daughter who was raped by her step-dad, fathers who refused to let their sons live their own lives, parents who abandoned their families, a son who slaughters the people who raised him, a father who left his son little but a family tradition of crime and alcoholism.
This is, perhaps, a bit too much. It is as if Ulfelder spend years dreaming up every variation on atrocious parenting and then squeezed it all into his first book. But wait. This novel is otherwise so good that he pretty much gets away with it.
The story is suspenseful and original, the characters are well-drawn, and the dialogue crackles. The fact is, Steve Ulfelder can really write, and Purgatory Chasm is a remarkably strong debut. I look forward to his next book.
Purgatory Chasm will be published by St. Martin’s Press on May 10.