2016-07-20 / Arts & Entertainment News

Debut novel explores how low a man can go and still right himself


In the time-honored tradition of Florida Noir, this new title is more grit than polish. And, by the way, that’s a good thing. We meet the main character, Scotland Ross, trying to escape from hard times and avoid doing hard time. He’s a man with moral awareness, but also with a conflict of honorable and dishonorable loyalties.

A series of bad choices has made it difficult for Scotland to turn his life around. His parole officer is worried about him, and with good reason.

His older sister Dana, to whom he owes a lot going back to their childhood days, has married poorly and is in a big financial bind. Though Scotland needs cash to build a new life for himself, she flaunts her desperation to the point that he gives her what he has and takes dangerous employment to enable her husband’s irresponsibility — or is it just hard luck?

Scotland, a superb physical specimen, finds himself working for the man who would be governor of Florida. Allan Kinsey is a ruthless, all-purpose criminal. Drugs and real estate coexist in his growing empire. How he will make the transition from gangster to governor is clear enough in his own mind: buying influence and subservience with the currency of money, promises and threats.

HESS HESS For some readers, the Kinsey character might seem unrealistic; others will be reminded of a certain presidential candidate who interprets an opinion not his own as a hurtful threat that must be put down.

Working for Kinsey is already a violation of Scotland’s parole, but he rationalizes his choice while hoping to find his way out of Kinsey’s snare. When he disappears, attempting to start a new life in an idealized Daytona Beach, he is tracked down by a pair of Kinsey’s henchmen. In a gloriously violent scene, he makes his escape from being captive on a boat.

Jeffrey Hess is masterful at portraying the criminal types, their outlook on the world and the peculiar ways in which they justify their actions. Kinsey’s main assistant, a man named Platinum, is an intelligent psychopath, and the twin bookends who almost murdered Scotland are just as crazy but not quite so bright.

Thought the plot of “Beachhead” is serviceable, character portrayal and character development are stronger ingredients in this debut novel. Scotland is given sufficient complexity and individuality to warrant at least a second appearance.

His sister, too often dependent on pills, has questionable coping skills in spite of good intentions. One can sympathize with her without condoning her behavior.

Other female characters, though of less importance, are also effectively drawn. These include Maria, who is Linsey’s unfaithful girlfriend, and Kyla, the generous, attractive young band drummer who nurses Scotland back to health.

¦ “Beachhead” by Jeffery Hess. Down and Out Books. 322 pages. Trade paperback, $16.95. ¦ “Beachhead” by Jeffery Hess. Down and Out Books. 322 pages. Trade paperback, $16.95.

Mr. Hess is also adept at action scenes and developing a sense of place. His portraits of Tampa, Daytona Beach and other locations ring true without being overdrawn or slowing the action. He gets the atmospherics right and puts readers on the spot with his vivid descriptions of residences, modes of transportation and what’s to be observed along the way. The author has worked diligently and well to flesh out his decision to set the novel in 1980, drawing upon popular culture, period technology, and other details to establish verisimilitude.

All in all, the Florida he paints does not resemble the touristy postcards. It’s filled with corruption and pain. Nonetheless, Mr. Hess gives us the kind of ugly that’s addictive.

I’m anxious to discover what’s next from this highly promising writer.

About the author

Aside from “Beachhead,” Jeffery Hess is the editor of the award-winning anthologies “Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform,” and “Home of the Brave: Somewhere in the Sand.” He served six years aboard the Navy’s oldest and newest ships and has held writing positions at a daily newspaper, a Fortune 500 company and a university-based research center. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte, and his writing has appeared widely in print and online.

Mr. Hess lives near Tampa, where he leads the DD-214 Writers’ Workshop for military veterans. ¦

— Phil Jason, Ph. D., United States Naval Academy professor emeritus of English, is a poet, critic and freelance writer with 20 books to his credit, including several studies of war literature and a creative writing text.

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