‘Dog of the Afterworld’
Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:
‘DOG OF THE AFTERWORLD’
I’m keeping my eye out these days for handsome Russian assassins. I had never considered the possibility of one roaming freely around Kansas until I read my brother’s newly released first novel, “Dog of the Afterworld.”
His story is a work of fiction; there are likely very few Russian spies on assignment in the Sunflower State.
OK, I have to admit that when someone I know asks me to read a book they’ve written, I clench my teeth. What will I tell them if I don’t like their book?
But when my brother, Leon Unruh, sent me an early electronic version of his novel and let me take it for a test drive, I had only good things to report back to him. It was a feeling of elation, and a sigh of relief, to be able to write to Leon and say, “Great story, bro.”
“Dog of the Afterworld” is an entertaining novel, a thriller. It surprised me, however, that my kind and peaceable brother came up with such a tale of villains and evil. But that just means Leon has a good imagination. Right?
When we first meet the story’s main character, Nikolai Fyodorov, a strong and capable 25-year-old, he is hiding at a shipyard in Anchorage, Alaska, preparing to shoot a forklift driver. Working for a man named Karp, Nikolai eliminates people who are a problem for the Russian underworld. “He was entitled to carve nineteen notches into the stock of his gun and was justifiably proud of his record.” And yet, Nik is likable, and he has a secret past that drives him.
In Chapter One, Nik is beaten up by an unknown assailant and fails to kill his target at the shipyard. His disappointed boss, Karp, sends him to Kansas on another mission, a chance for Nik to redeem himself.
Nik flies into Denver, takes a Greyhound bus to Hays, and then hitchhikes to Great Bend for his next hit, one that will help shape the U.S. Senate. Nik is given a ride by a man named Henry who checks oil well sites. On a 106-degree August day, Nik learns about Kansas from his driver who explains windmills and thunderstorms, circle irrigation units and grain elevators.
My brother has lived in Alaska for more than two decades. Words have always been my brother’s way of life. For years, Leon was a copyeditor. He worked for the Austin American-Statesman, Dallas Morning News, Wichita Eagle, and Anchorage Daily News. Now he is at the University of Alaska Fairbanks as the editor at the Alaska Native Language Center.
I know how much Leon misses Kansas, and so it didn’t surprise me at all that he wrote a story to fit on the Kansas plains. Much of the novel is set in Barton County where he and I were raised.
Leon places Nik in a fictitious town called Sandstone. He writes, “Sandstone had seen better days. In fact, almost every day for the past century was better than the day that followed it.”
Sandstone is not our hometown of Pawnee Rock, but it does share many similar geographic features. While none of the characters resembled anyone I knew, the layout of Sandstone felt very familiar.
Jack Kilby Square in Great Bend serves as a setting for a dramatic scene. And poor little Sandstone is the center of a night of deadly drama as the story hits its climax during a wild Kansas thunderstorm.
The novel is not limited to the work of paid killers; the story has dirty politicians, a child pornography ring, and a bit of falling-in-love when perhaps one should not. We follow several subplots and a number of characters, and they’re introduced and developed well. I am the author’s sister, but as a reader I felt that Leon did a masterful job at weaving the storylines together into one satisfying novel.
This is a book of action and suspense. The writing is clear and sharp, the characters are full of life, the story rich and complex. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and you might, too.