In Howard Owen’s ninth novel, The Reckoning, the lives of George James and Freeman Hawk meet again after decades of separation. Freeman was an African-American civil rights activist who fled to Canada to avoid getting drafted. George James was a scion of the old money South and an heir to the Old Dominion Ham Company. Owen shifts between past and present, reflecting the tense relationship between George James, widowed and alcoholic, and his son Jake. Freeman Hawk returned to George, but George’s idealization of Freeman makes the opaque circumstances harder to pick up. George tells Jake how Freeman led the nascent anti-war movement at New Hope College. The menacing forces that swirl around Freeman’s reappearance cast the novel as a garden-variety thriller.
The thriller aspect is deepened with extended flashbacks into the lives of Freeman and George. Beyond the memories and stories of the two men lay something more ominous. Deceptions pile on top of more deceptions until nothing remains but a wilderness of mirrors.
Owen crafts a Balzackian novel, equal parts potboiler and historical epic. (Like Balzac, Mr. Owen is surprisingly prolific, working as a newspaper editor and churning out novels.) Tracing the James family back to their Jewish predecessor who fought in the Civil War leads to George’s son Jacob, heir apparent and juvenile delinquent. Jake finds solace in the isolation of running whereas his father, unable to deal with life’s hardships, descends into the soothing abyss of alcoholism. And like any good novel by Balzac, this tale has its share of history, bloodshed, crime, and slivers of redemption.