Weekend Read by Claudine Wolk: "The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell" by Robert Dugoni
Claudine Wolk is an author, podcast host, and book marketing consultant. Find her writing at claudinewolk.substack.com.
Arts News Now’s Claudine Wolk reviews the newly released thriller novel, The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, by Robert Dugoni.
NY Times best-selling author, Robert Dugoni, has been writing books for years: the “Tracy Crosswhite” police series set in Seattle, the “David Sloane” legal thriller series, for example, as well as several stand-alone novels. The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, however, was his first literary novel in the year it published. The novel was so good that it was awarded Suspense Magazine’s 2018 Book of the Year.
is dry, funny, and heartbreaking all at once. Reading it has been my most enjoyable reading experience of 2023. It is so good, I’m envious of readers who may be hearing about the book for the first time.
How does a writer who specializes in police and legal thrillers hit it out of the park with his first literary novel? The answer is beyond my pay grade but perhaps, the old adage, ‘write what you know,’ is a clue. Dugoni admits that he plucked the inciting incident of the story from a newspaper article but I suspect the central character – Sam Hell’s Mother – came to life on the pages through personal experience.
Dugoni is one of ten children and his brother Michael was born with Down’s syndrome. In an interview, Dugoni recalled his mom’s advocacy for Michael’s education at a time when institutions were recommended for children with Down’s syndrome. Her efforts on Michael’s behalf were well-known in their community and others emulated her stalwartness for their own children’s education. Sam Hell’s Mom is similarly inspiring.
We meet our protagonist, Sam Hell, in of all places, a doctor’s office consultation for a vasectomy. Sam’s live-in girlfriend, described as generally detached from their relationship but rather fond of her fabulous abs, does not desire motherhood. Ostensibly, the couple has agreed for Sam to solve the the problem. Sam picks this critical, life-changing moment to re-evaluate his relationship with her and his life. He is reminded of his father’s advice, “There comes a time in every man’s life when he stops looking forward and starts looking back.”
With that one memory of his father, Sam begins his tale. He recounts his past while sharing his present on-going story. There are seven thoroughly enjoyable parts to the book that alternate between Sam’s past and his present and back again.
Sam, we learn early on, has a unique ailment. He with born with red eyes, a condition termed ocular albinism. As a child, he was nick-named “devil child.” Many of the children and adults in Sam’s life are heartless and cruel but his faithfully religious mother refuses to allow him to wallow. She is fierce in ensuring her son has a normal life and gets involved when impediments to her goal arise. Writing from the point of view of a first grader has got to be challenging for any author. Dugoni’s depiction of Sam in first grade, suffering the consequences of his Mom’s advocacy, both good and bad, is stellar, vibrant and heart-breakingly readable.
Dugoni does not falter in the caliber of his writing throughout the entire novel. It is flawlessly enjoyable from start to finish. The reader simply cannot wait to find out what happens to Sam and all the amazing people in his orbit, including Sam’s Mom and Dad and his two best friends – an African American boy named Ernie and a tough, other side of the tracks gal named Mickie.
For those of you who grew up in a close-knit neighborhood and perhaps went to Catholic grade school, the intense memories conjured may catch you by surprise, right down to the twinkies at lunch and the “brown paper towels” in the bathrooms. But even if Catholic grade school is not your childhood story, the depiction of the human condition, the love of family and the acute pain of growing up, told not in a syrupy way but honestly with grit and raw angst is a worthwhile journey. In an interview with National Review in April 2018 about the book, Mr. Dugoni commented “I hope some of these characters (in the book) can speak to reader’s hearts, and that the novel can have some lingering meaning in their lives as the above novels had in mine.”
Title: The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell
Author: Robert Dugoni
Pub Date: April 24, 2018
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Page Count: 447 pp