Book review: Former TV newsman turns to first novel

Gus Koernig had the unusual distinction of anchoring evening news broadcasts for both KULR-8 and KTVQ-2 in Billings before moving to Arizona in 2005. There he writes news stories for iHeartMedia, has ghostwritten five nonfiction books and now is the co-author of his first work of fiction.

Writing the novel, Koernig says on the web page of Southwest Creative Group, “is far and away the most fun I’ve ever had as a writer.” It had better be: “The Redemption of Lonnie Tate Book One: The Pentangelo Group” is the first in an anticipated trilogy of connected novels.

Koernig’s partner in the project is Loren Marsters, a Vietnam veteran and ad copy writer who has written a couple of theater pieces: “A Day in the Life of a Night at the Dance” and “Domestic Violence the Musical?”

Marsters, also of Mesa, Arizona, hatched the idea for the project by submitting a couple of dozen pages to Koernig. They worked together on the self-published novel for three-and-a-half years and are trying to market it while also working on the next book in the series.

On YouTube, you can find a couple of videos of positive reviews the book has gotten, as well as an interview of Koernig by KTVQ newsman Ed McIntosh. An Amazon.com analysis of customer reviews gives the book 4.9 out of five stars.

Gus Koernig

As much as I like and respect Koernig, who was once kind enough to speak to my journalism class, this will not be a five-star review. Let’s start with a couple of things that annoy me more than they probably should.

One is that this 323-page book contains 140 chapters. Short chapters are not necessarily a bad thing. Kurt Vonnegut crammed 127 chapters into an even shorter novel, “Cat’s Cradle.” But Vonnegut wrote in an epigrammatic style that made those short chapters feel, if not complete, at least logical and connected.

None of that applies to “Lonnie Tate.” Here the chapter breaks make sense in some places, but often they seem random, as if they were imposed by some outside force. That doesn’t do much for continuity, which already was a weak point. And even though each chapter is scrupulously, if sometimes confusedly, titled, no table of contents lights the way for the wandering reader.

Second is that the authors use a lot of italics to show how they intend certain passages to be read. Italics to show emphasis can be helpful, but reading them begins to feel like trying to learn a computer program from someone who insists of hitting every key for you. Typographical tricks are supposed to provide guidance, not impose marching orders.

OK, that’s just being petty, especially about a book that does a lot of things right. Aside from a couple of egregious errors on the book cover itself, the book is nearly free from typos, misused words, dangling participles and other annoying hazards of the self-publishing trade. The democratization of the printing business has had many virtues, but its vices include free admission into the business of novices whose work, if they were auto mechanics, would get them reported to the Better Business Bureau.

That is not the case in “Lonnie Tate,” and one suspects that Koernig gets the credit for the clean flow of the copy in this novel. Before deviating into broadcast journalism, he served a stint with the Associated Press, an organization that rewards precision in writing more than it does imagination.

Basic writing skills make this a tolerable read but don’t really answer the question, why bother? That question is not so easy to answer. The first few chapters are set in 1967 in Vietnam, where we are introduced to characters who show up throughout the novel, among them Tate. He shoots a North Vietnam soldier who turns out to be a woman carrying a baby Tate had helped deliver just a few pages before.

The shooting isn’t Tate’s fault, but has he turned into “a bag of grenades—the pins pulled—just waiting to explode”? That isn’t clear either. By August 1968 Tate is the cold-blooded “wet boy,” or trigger man, on a CIA assassination team that murders the wrong target in Cairo. Again, not his fault but also not a good career move, especially for a guy who graduated at 483rd in a high school class of 485.

Jump to 2010, and Tate is a freelance advertising designer who tells a potential client, “I’m an asshole. Don’t play well with others.” At some point, now in his 60s, he winds up as a security guard at an amusement park.

Then things get complicated. The old CIA team gets back together for reasons that aren’t fully explained until nearly the end of the novel. For much of the book, it isn’t even entirely clear whether they are even working for the good guys.

Moreover, the novel keeps jumping around in time and space, from character to character, so that Tate doesn’t really emerge as a character defined as clearly as he might appear here. He ruthlessly wipes out people who—often inexplicably—threaten him or people close to him. He feels affectionate toward his daughter and develops a tepid love interest, but no sparks fly.

There is a nice twist at the end, but even if readers cannot see it coming, they have to know that something like it is bound to be on the way. Otherwise, they may find that they have been rooting for the wrong side all along.

So where does all of this go? Hard to say. There is a germ of an interesting character in Tate, even if he is not fully realized. The other characters meld into an undifferentiated mush; this reader found it difficult to care whether they lived or died, since there was no persuasive evidence that any of them had ever lived at all.

That’s a fundamental drawback in a thriller. Nobody cares how many bullets are fired or how many bombs go off if nobody cares about the people who might get hurt. Bringing characters to life on the page is the most difficult task in fiction. With Koernig’s writing skills and Marster’s on-the-ground knowledge, there’s a decent chance that this project will turn out right.

But that hasn’t happened yet.

 

“The Redemption of Lonnie Tate Book One: The Pentangelo Group,” by Loren Marsters and Gus Koernig. Kindle and paperback, 323 pages. For ordering information, go to www.southwestcg.com.

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