Life has dealt Jamie Elders a lousy hand.
The 19-year-old wants nothing more than to get as far away as possible from her hometown, a bleak little corner of New York state called Blind River.
But she’s stuck there. In the opening chapters of The Girl From Blind River, Gale Massey’s compulsively readable debut novel, Jamie is hemmed in by poverty and difficult family obligations. As this noir thriller’s plot takes off, the trap around her tightens. Her only hope for escape is her talent for poker, but how well will she play the game when the stakes turn lethal?
Massey, a Florida native who lives in St. Petersburg, is an alum of Eckerd College’s Writers in Paradise program. The Girl From Blind River has a vivid and decidedly non-Florida setting; it sleets and snows so often in Jamie’s town that you might want to keep a blanket handy while you read.
Her family life is about as chilly as the weather. Her father died when she was small; her mother went to prison on drug charges when Jamie was 10 and her brother, Toby, a year younger. The siblings were taken in by their father’s brother, Loyal, a gambler and petty criminal. Jamie learned her card skills (not all of them according to Hoyle) at the kitchen table in Loyal’s rundown mobile home, where she and Toby still live, sleeping on cots in a storage room and foraging for Pop-Tarts and bologna.
Jamie has dropped out of college and is itching for a new life; Toby is the reason she doesn’t just hop on a bus out of town. Loyal beats both of them, but Toby takes the brunt, and he has become a bully himself, his anger getting him into constant trouble at school.
Their mother, Phoebe, has been out of prison for a year, but she makes such a meager living waiting tables in a diner that they can’t move in with her — and Jamie, still seething with resentment, doesn’t want to anyway.
Another hold, though tenuous, for Jamie is her current boyfriend. We can gauge how promising that relationship is by the snarky response of her best friend, Angel, on finding out about it: "Jack at the check store? Jack your uncle’s business partner? The guy with the floppy brown hair and dreamy eyes? Jack who is married and twice your age? See how casually you slipped that in? How long’s that been going on?"
Jamie tells herself that Jack is a fling (the thrill is already pretty much gone) and Toby is just about old enough to take care of himself, and that the several thousand dollars she has won at online poker will get her to Florida — and cover a little loan she gives herself from gambling profits she was supposed to deliver from Loyal to Jack for money laundering.
Then the illegal online sites are closed down before she gets her winnings, and she tries to recover the borrowed cash at a nearby casino. It goes badly, leaving her in serious debt to the unforgiving Loyal. Her casino trip also causes her to miss playing dealer at a high-stakes poker game Loyal arranged at the home of his longtime, if unlikely, friend, a powerful but creepy judge named Keating.
Phoebe, another accomplished card shark, filled in as dealer at the game, where a retired NFL player in town for a few days got very drunk and bet his Super Bowl ring. That sets off a series of events that goes from very bad to dire. A police detective named Garcia starts following Jamie around Blind River, offering her earnest advice — but is he sincere or just another con?
"If there was a window to escape," Jamie thinks midway through the book, "it was closing fast. Right here at the underside of twenty, there was an opening, maybe a month, and it might be the only time she’d be able to leave, find her way to some city where there were real jobs, where winters weren’t so f------ cold, where no one would ask her to help move a dead body in the middle of the night."
In Jamie, Massey creates a character who is hardly heroic, but always believable. She has a precocious world-weariness born of her upbringing, but she’s still young enough to trust people she shouldn’t. Almost everyone around her has a hole card, some secret that can wipe her out, and almost none of them play fair. Much of the novel’s considerable suspense is built on watching her play — or bluff — her way around them.
Crisply paced and stacked with surprises, Massey’s The Girl From Blind River is an impressive debut.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.