With his recently published novel, Byron, author Michael Corrigan delivers something unexpected from a writer entrenched in the halls of academia: an action thriller.
Though the title evokes another Byron, Corrigan's multi-plotted novel draws more upon Spillane, Hemingway and even a pinch of Pynchon than the Romantic style of the author of Don Juan. Which isn't to say that the protagonist of Corrigan's novel isn't a bit Byronic, just that there's a lot more Jake Barnes than Childe Harold in there.
Corrigan is a professor at Idaho State University, and his Byron concerns an English prof, Byron Duffy, who teaches at a fictional college in Corrigan's very real stomping grounds of Pocatello, Idaho. Byron gets tangled up in a byzantine mess involving a student filmmaker, corrupt local law enforcement, white supremacists, toxic dumping on an Indian reservation, the FBI, the Mafia and more than one murder. The novel's plots and subplots are myriad, and the story is never going where you think it's going, keeping you guessing until the last pages. (Corrigan says he was initially inspired by Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49.)
In the beginning, our Byron is just an imminently out-of-work academic fresh from a bad breakup with a co-ed, living with his alcoholic roommate, Judson, and trying to cope with his students' depressing apathy to the great works of Western literature. However, Byron is soon drawn into a big, hairy mess, when a student's boyfriend manages to get on the wrong side of some very bad people by witnessing and taping a murder. Bryon's colleague, Maria, turns out to be an undercover FBI agent on assignment, and soon Byron and Mary are drawn together as they fight for their respective lives through whizzing bullets, drug syndicates, terrorists, sabotage, explosions and even bear attacks. There is never a dull moment here, with nonstop action, suspense, murder, and plenty of sex. (This Byron gets more tail than Don Juan wearing Axe Body Spray.)
Even so, it becomes clear that Byron's real meat isn't the thriller plot, but the love story and doomed love triangle between Byron, Mary and Mary's handsome FBI partner, Dalton. As Mary flits in and out of Byron's life, jerking him around yet drawing him in, Byron struggles with finding meaning in their encounters and figuring out where the relationship is going and where he wants it to go.
The character of Byron is brooding, unlucky and terribly existential, yet he is a man of few words, drawn in spare, Hemingwayesque lines. William Faulkner is invoked as well. His story "The Bear" comes up repeatedly in Byron, and several characters actually take part in a bear hunt. Unlike in Faulkner, in a more Papa moment, Corrigan's bear dies.
Corrigan says he drew some of his plot inspiration from real life at ISU. While Corrigan was in the English Department in the '70s, there really was an undercover narcotics agent at the school and another professor also worked for the FBI. The rest, though, is Corrigan's own invention. Even though there are undeniable references to real life places and people, Byron is no roman a clef. Rather, it's an action thriller you wouldn't expect from a college professor, with a deliberate, conscious layer of literary allusion you would expect.
Corrigan has both a bachelor's and a master's degree in English from San Francisco State. He has written several articles and is also the author of two other books: a memoir of growing up in a traditional Irish Catholic family in San Francisco in the 1950s and '60s, Confessions of a Shanty Irishman, in 2002, and in 2004, of book of short fiction called The Irish Connection and Other Stories, both put out by Publish America.
Byron represents a departure in theme and style for Corrigan, but it was actually a long time in the making. Over a decade ago, Corrigan set out to write a thriller. After finishing a rough draft in 1992, Corrigan set the work aside and essentially forgot about it. Then, says Corrigan, "a critic, Laurel Johnson, pushed me to revise and finish it." He did, and finally, in 2005, Byron was printed.
With all three of his books, Corrigan has opted to go the publish-on-demand (POD) route, as opposed to working with a major publisher to release the words. In the last few years, technological advances and the prevalence of online booksellers has helped create a push in the publish-on-demand world.
Corrigan says he chose POD after experiencing a frustration in finding a new literary agent. He used Publish America initially, and while satisfied with the look of his book, acknowledges that Confessions likely would have sold much better--especially after a positive review in a major paper like the one in the San Francisco Chronicle--if the book had been published by a major publishing house. He is happy with Virtual Bookworm as Byron's publisher. The book has received a favorable review and is in libraries around Pocatello, but it hasn't garnered the major critical response Confessions did.
Byron is Corrigan's first foray into the world of fictional intrigue and it may be the author's only thriller, at least for a while. He says that no follow-up is planned in the immediate future. Corrigan's current work in progress is another in the vein of memoir. Drawing on a recent personal loss, the work deals with family tragedies and grief.
Byron, The Irish Connection and Other Stories and Confessions of a Shanty Irishman are all available online at www.bn.com and www.amazon.com, as well as from the publishers. To read the San Francisco Chronicle's review of Confessions of a Shanty Irishman, go to http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2003/02/16/RV154470.DTL.