Hoosier Life & Casualty, Ian Woollen, Casperian Books, 2009
A family gathered in a hospital room is always a loaded litmus test. Who will make the first bad joke to try to break the tension? Who will collapse in tears? Who will smuggle in the hooch?
What do you get if you throw a millionaire insurance company CEO, a Civil War re-enactor and museum curator, a closeted filmmaker, a socially-conscious heiress, her Unitarian-Universalist choir-directing yoga-teaching best friend, a political striver, a mensch of an ex-juvenile offender named Elvis, corn-starch falling from the sky, a lost diary, and some rogue PsychClones together in one novel? A smart, warm, funny book with an offbeat sense of humor that is just plain fun, that's what.
Hoosier Life & Casualty is set in Indianapolis, described as the insurance capital of the Mid-west and a city with a small-town atmosphere. Everybody knows everybody else, and everybody knows your business. Despite their conniving and cover-ups (such as of the accident that created the PsychClones which occasionally sweep through the streets, sucking up careless bystanders and depositing them, days later, as lifeless shells of the former human beings they once were), corporations and their executives drive the city's economic, political, and social scenes.
Elvis Scurvine grew up in this town and knows every nook and cranny of every neighborhood. He's a divorcé with a juvenile record who has pretty well cleaned up his act, perhaps with the exception of forging a meaningful relationship with his young son. He and his best buddy Devon Eustiss still get together once a year at the state fair to reminisce about old times. This year, after leaving the fair, Devon spots Elvis's old truck, "The Beast," and on a whim, the men take off with it. Little do they know it now belongs to Marian Purlbaugh, heiress to Hoosier Life & Casualty. Elvis, who can't afford a "third strike" on his record, bails out to avoid capture, inadvertently taking Marian's diary along with him. The diary, of course, contains secrets that the family would rather not come out. In an unlikely turn of events, Marian and Elvis become close. Their romance is complicated by family maneuvering and manipulations, production of a Civil War movie, the line of succession at HL&C, and a little blackmail.
Woollen writes with levity, wit, humor and plenty of humanity, resulting in very likeable characters and a very likeable novel, with enough depth to engage a thinking reader, and enough comedy to keep it entertaining. There were two places in the plot I wasn't wholly convinced of Elvis and Marian's reactions to each other's faults (I thought Elvis moved pretty quickly past one that would likely take more time and soul-searching for most people; I thought Marian overreacted to one of Elvis's later missteps), but it works overall. Woollen also manages to poke some fun at the bureaucratic behemoth that is the insurance industry without coming across as heavy-handed or promoting a personal agenda. I won't tell you what happens to our millionaire CEO, but I thought it was just perfect. If this sounds like your kind of story, it probably is.
Many thanks to the author for a complimentary copy of the book. All opinions expressed are my own.