The Family Hightower: A Novel

by Brian Francis Slattery

(Seven Stories Press, $27.95, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Brian Francis Slattery, an editor and co-founder of the New Haven Review, has published four novels, as well as short fiction for Glimmer Train, McSweeney’s, the Revelator and other journals. His novels include Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America, which was named by Amazon’s editors the best science-fiction book of 2008, and Lost Everything, which won the 2012 Philip K. Dick Award. And he’s a musician, too.

What is this book about?

What are the odds? Two members of the same family, one living in Morocco and the other in Cleveland, unwittingly name their sons Peter Henry Hightower, after the boys’ grandfather, an Ukrainian-American crime boss who has amassed a fortune in ill-gotten gains. One boy grows up to be a journalist who lives abroad; the other follows in the family footsteps by becoming a criminal. Their lives are not exactly parallel, but eventually they become dangerously entwined: killers seeking to wipe out the criminal mistakenly go after his cousin, the reporter. Throw in the grisly Eastern European black market for human organs and you get a dark thriller that combines a compelling crime novel with a family saga.

Why you’ll like it:

Slattery writes with a knowing air that is at once gruff and wry, confiding his often gruesome and shocking tale to his readers as though he were sharing some dark family secrets. Which, actually, is exactly what he is doing. Moving from Cleveland to Ukraine and back, with side trips to Morocco, Zimbabwe and Romania, this is a fast-paced thriller with tough characters engaged in bloody endeavors.

What others are saying:

Author Stewart O’Nan says: “There will be blood, Brian Slattery promises early on, and, man, does he deliver. Expertly paced and beautifully detailed, The Family Hightower is a Ukrainian-American Godfather–a time-traveling, globetrotting crime saga spanning the last century, spiriting the reader from Morocco to Zimbabwe to Romania and always back home to strangely exotic Cleveland. Completely satisfying and completely  brilliant.”

A starred Kirkus Review says: “A tale dripping with blood and money in a family that’s far more fun to read about than it would be to live with.  “So listen,” the narrator begins, and you feel like he’s confiding in you about a bunch of crooks he knows. But no, he’s “selling them out to you” as though he’s more snitch than storyteller. “There is blood everywhere,” he assures “dear reader” near the beginning, and in due time, it’s a promise amply kept. What else to expect from people who make some of their riches from involuntary organ donors? The bulk of the story takes place in Cleveland, with side trips to Ukraine. Cleveland is “a city built to make money and a city that money built, built and took apart, again and again.” There are two cousins named Peter Hightower. One is a journalist, and one, Petey, is a criminal who evolves from Petro Garko to Pete the Uke to Peter Henry Hightower, falsely claiming to have gone to Yale. “How much money does my family have?” asks the other Peter Hightower. The answer is that they stopped counting long ago. Their grandfather was a thug with deep Ukrainian roots. The criminal tradition continues in Cleveland, with the women just as vicious as the men—but will that be enough against a rival named The Wolf? Slattery goes into rich digressions such as the fatal Sugar Ray Robinson-Jim Doyle fight, and he does them so well the reader doesn’t care that they’re only tangential to the storyline. And one could fill a page with all the novel’s quotable lines; “I love you means I will bleed you dry” tops the list. This is a splendid story filled with betrayal and disaster. Readers prone to schadenfreude will find it doubly delicious.”

Says Library Journal: “Philip K. Dick Award winner Slattery does something a little different, turning in a book that’s at once literary thriller and family drama. Peter Henry Hightower has grown up abroad, always on the run with his father, but he doesn’t know why until he rebels and gets in touch with his family in America. He soon discovers that the family wealth has been built on the criminal activities of the grandfather after whom he’s been named and that a cousin also called Peter Henry Hightower is a spectacular criminal-in-training. VERDICT A swift but thoughtful read about what family means.”

Publishers Weekly says: “Slattery’s fourth novel has a dynamic premise that unfortunately descends into a frustrating jumble. Two cousins are given the same name: Peter Henry Hightower, named after their grandfather, a Ukranian-American crime boss. They grow up differently (one becomes a journalist, the other a criminal), but their fates are entwined by a mistaken phone call setting killers on the trail of one, thinking it is the other. The bulk of the book is set in 1995, although sections go back as far as 1896, and move past 1995 to an unnamed contemporary date. The canvas of the book ranges from Cleveland to Kiev to Granada to Africa and many places in between. Delving deeply into the horrors of the Eastern European black market organ trade, Slattery should be commended for not watering his story down or giving us false heroes, and his research and sensory detail are excellent. Unfortunately, the choice of present tense and the unnamed narrator talking at the reader throughout keep a buffer zone between the reader and the experience of the book. A rather wry, somewhat condescending tone  prevent what could have been a strong emotional impact and thought-provoking aftermath.”

When is it available?

It’s on the shelves of the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Barbour branch.

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