Oceanview publishers Pat and Bob Grussin, long-time summer residents in Amagansett, have a winner with Saving Laura by Jim Satterfield. He’s crafted an exciting adventure thriller full of evocative writing about lakes and mountains he knows well from his career as a biologist for the Colorado Division of Wildlife and, since 1995, work for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (Satterfield has a doctorate in fishery and wildlife). Setting drives his tale, informing the resilient character of its heroic young protagonist, Bobby Lee Shelby, whose name is revealed only late in the story. An orphan, he lived for a while with his grandfather (“The Old Man”) in a remote cabin in the woods learning survival skills and the kind of respect for others and the land they don’t teach at Mesa Community College. His late grandfather and the old friend, a loner anarchist neighbor, would call Bobby Lee “College.”
A short prologue captures attention with its opening sentence, “Tom Tucker sold the best cocaine in Aspen,” $100 a gram. The narrator’s looking back 30 years to 1979. Tucker, a nasty guy, is about to close a deal with his supplier from Vegas, but unbeknownst to them, a tall, thin young man with a respirator over his face, approaches their Mercedes, sprays Mace and makes off with $75,000 and 11 pounds of blow. “There were no witnesses to the theft.” How then does the narrator know this? “I was the robber.” Cut to chapter one with College recollecting how he went on the run after that.
Sentences move easily, though the occasional cliché remains (the place was packed, the last bit of sun slips behind sagebrush, and snow covers the woods in a white mantle). For the most part, however, the narrative moves suspensefully, with distinctive, resonant images (night on the mountain is “darker than the inside of a cow”). Country music references also define time and place, as well as lingo peculiar to the eccentricities of those who live in the area, not to mention the eccentrics themselves. These include the pilot of a small plane who helps College escape from both Tucker and local and state police. The cops are on his tail for his accidental presence at a Bonny and Clyde shootout he witnessed, after he hitched a ride with them. The pilot has no license or training, but says he flies fine by “IFR” (I. Follow. Roads).
Soon the reader learns why College stole the coke. “Someone needed my help. I’d made a vow. Tom Tucker would rot in hell, and Laura would be free.” Laura, once his fiancé, whom he turned away in sorrow and confusion over the loss of his grandfather, drifted into the seductive arms of Tucker, who turned her into a cokehead. He tortures her into naming College as the guy who robbed him. College is full of remorse and a sense of responsibility. He must save Laura. “Just don’t go thinkin’ you’re the f—ing Lone Ranger,” he’s told. But, of course, he will, and his mission to save Laura will lead to one helluva month. Complications set in when the Bonnie and Clyde shoot two patrol officers. College tries to help one of them, who’s dying. Eventually, he finds Laura, and they get a mean-looking but (to them) loving big black dog called Jaws, but they underestimate Tucker’s perfidy and corrupt law enforcement.
Such is Satterfield’s skill in crafting this page-turner that the reader forgets that Bobby Lee is looking back—he’s obviously survived his crusade. But why is he looking back now? Because he’s writing about the adventure, following up on a suggestion made to him those years back by a famous writer whom he met when he was on the run, hitchhiking. The writer took a fancy to Bobby Lee and became involved in the scheme to get Tucker. He also suggested that Bobby Lee work for him as a researcher and later on, that he write up his experience.
Although the reader roots for Bobbie Lee because he’s smart and decent, his devotion to Laura, who will need a lot of help, is conflict-free, sacrificial behavior that’s almost too good to be true. Saving Laura is not, however, about character so much as plot, and this Satterfield delivers in the form of a fast-paced narrative. Incidentally, the story shows the ease with which guns can be purchased in The West (Bobby Lee, who has the DEA on his case, is never questioned when he buys a piece). More significant, it reflects the naturalness of owning guns where they are a traditional part of the culture—a perspective worth keeping in mind as the battle over gun control continues to roil the nation.