Reviewed by David Steven Rappoport.
God on Mayhem Street is Kristin A. Oakley’s follow-up to her debut novel, Carpe Diem, Illinois, which was cited by the Chicago Writers Association as the best non-traditionally published book of the year in 2014 and was a finalist for the 2015 Independent Author Network Book of the Year. With these awards to her credit, it is not surprising that Oakley writes well. Her prose is taut and convincing, and her technique is strong. These strengths are abundant in this novel of bigotry and violence in rural Wisconsin.
Leo Townsend, a reporter for the Chicago Examiner, lands a career-making exclusive interview with Griffin Carlisle, an openly gay presidential candidate. The interview is cut short when Leo receives news of his father’s heart attack and rushes home to the small town of Endeavor, Wis. The family relationships are complicated and strained. Livestock suddenly take ill. It emerges they have been poisoned by unscrupulous evangelical bigots that Leo discovers will stop at nothing to take possession of the Townsend family farm by any means necessary. The animosity escalates.
Although God on Mayhem Street is a roller coaster of a novel that rarely slows for its twists and loop-the-loops, the cart jumps the track a few times. The overall structure of the novel is robust, and many of the characters and their relationships are well-drawn and compelling. Oakley has a gift for building and sustaining tension. Yet some characters – particularly the greedy evangelical mayor, Landry, and his minions – tend towards the monochromatic. Landry lacks the complexity of, say, Sinclair Lewis’ eponymous Elmer Gantry.
Further, some of Oakley’s plot choices are confusing, such as Leo’s decision to help Dahlia, his sad, former high school girlfriend. It is difficult to understand why Leo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, thinks that it will be possible to collect enough evidence to expose Landry while protecting Dahlia from the consequences of her criminal behavior.
God on Mayhem Street is a lovely piece of writing from a novelist with talent. Oakley has a feel for contemporary small-town life in the Midwest. Further, it is difficult to argue that a novel about the disastrous effects of religious bigotry in rural America is anything but timely.